Communities are split by the wedge of abortion rights, with pro-choice and anti-abortion doctors working tensely together in the same public hospitals and protesters yelling outside: It's a familiar image in the United States, but lately abortion has polarized another country perhaps even more. Just two years after Mexico City became the first major Latin American capital to legalize it, abortion has become a flashpoint for social conflict throughout the country. Today, a wave of anti-abortion legislation is moving across Mexico's states and towns, and both abortion-rights and anti-abortion activists and legislators are preparing for full-blown war.
As in the United States, the conflict is as much about politics as it is about abortion. Mexican political parties here have found that the touchy social topic is a useful polarizer -- one that fires up voters on both sides. With the presidential election coming up in 2012, parties are already trying to line up fervent supporters. So recently, the moderate Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has joined the ruling conservative National Action Party (PAN) in backing anti-abortion reforms. The PRI's decision is a major political gamble. A party from the center that was in power for decades before being unseated by PAN presidents Vicente Fox in 2000 and Felipe Calderón in 2006, the PRI is betting that abortion might just be the issue that could attract just enough conservative voters to bulk up its usual moderate core, snag PAN's base -- and repay Calderón the electoral favor.
Abortion law in Mexico is still a patchwork and highly local affair. In the small majority of states where it's illegal (except in instances of rape and sometimes the mother's health), abortion carries varying degrees of punishment, from mandatory psychological treatment to jail time. But since 2007, the procedure has been allowed during the first three months of pregnancy in Mexico City, drawing women from across the country -- and ire from anti-abortion discontents. After an uproar over the legalization, the country's Supreme Court upheld the capital's right to provide the service in the fall of 2008.
But just last month, when the Gulf Coast's Veracruz became the 17th of 31 states to pass legislation declaring that life begins at conception -- effectively banning abortion -- legislators there upped the ante. They submitted an amendment to Mexico's Congress that proposes outlawing abortion throughout the country. The body is obligated to consider such amendments from states. Meanwhile, six more states have proposals banning abortion languishing in their legislatures.