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Proposed Law in Mexico Would Send Doctors Who Don't Suggest Abortion to Jail

Doctors who fail to inform their pregnant patients that they have the legal right to have an abortion -- or who refuse to refer women to doctors who perform abortions -- could be thrown into jail for up to four years, if the dominant political party in Mexico City's legislature has its way.

A bill has been co-introduced by the city's Health Committee chairwoman and a leading legislator that would mandate that all pregnant women in Mexico City be informed that they have the right to have an abortion in their first three months.

The bill, which is being debated in the legislature and is expected to pass, has the support of more than a dozen members of Mexico City’s ruling Democratic Revolution party -- the same party that passed the 2007 law that legalized abortion in Mexico’s capital city.

If passed into law, doctors who do not discuss abortion with their pregnant patients will be subject to penalties that include one to four years in prison, heavy fines and the loss of their medical licenses.

Legal analysts in Mexico say the bill is the pro-choice activists' latest weapon in Mexico's increasingly contentious war over abortion.

The legislator who introduced the bill, Beatriz Rojas, says the law is needed because “moral or religious concepts intend to influence the decision of the woman, misinforming her or deceiving her, regarding the decision to interrupt the pregnancy."

Conservative groups are predictably aghast.

“This is absurd and stupid,” said Patricia Lopez Mancera, director of the Center for Women’s Studies and Comprehensive Formation in Cancun. “They say doctors should tell the pregnant women about it and recommend abortion -- can you imagine?”

“This is from the Nazi feminists in Mexico who are looking for a culture of death.”

The initiative was introduced on April 22, the third anniversary of the legalization of abortion in Mexico City through the first three months of pregnancy.

John Ackerman, a legal analyst and professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the introduction of the bill shows how contentious the debate over abortion has become in the city in the three years since the law was passed. He said it also symbolizes an increasing cultural divide in Mexico, whose population was 88 percent Roman Catholic in 2000, according to census figures, but which historically has been more secular than the United States.

The country's religious right was prevented, both by public opinion and the law, from participating in politics prior to 2007 -- but that all changed when abortion was legalized, Ackerman said.

Following Mexico City's decision to legalize abortion, 17 of the country’s 32 states amended their constitutions to include a clause that protects human life from the moment of conception.

“Mexico City took these steps and there’s been a real strong backlash by the religious right in Mexico in a way we’ve never seen it before,” Ackerman said. “The culture wars have arrived in Mexico.”

He said he was not particularly surprised by the legislators' new initiative and took it as a demonstration of the intense nature of cultural and political dispute in Mexico City -- and as the pro-choice ruling party’s latest weapon in the war over abortion.

“This law, it’s to try to break the back of the religiously inspired who’ve really become a national resistance,” he said. “This is a response to extremely aggressive moral religious politics that’s taken off since approval of this law and the way politicians and [the] religious right have tried to undermine the application of this law.”

But Mancera says the Mexico City initiative is only fueling the conservative charge against the abortion rights movement.

“All this is doing is giving us more strength,” she said. “We can’t believe this. They will be now putting doctors in prison for something that can go against their values and principles.

“They are seeing that finally the pro-family and pro-women society is really sticking up and they are reacting and somebody has to stop them and stop all this craziness.”

Ackerman said the proposed law indicates that some doctors in Mexico City are refusing to inform patients of their right to an abortion. And he said that while middle-class women who read the newspapers are aware that abortion is legal, poor women probably don't know.

“Doctors have to inform women of their possibility of aborting -- this means that there’s lots of doctors that are really trying to fool these women that this is not the case and they don’t have these rights,” he said.

“There’s a long tradition of rights existing in the Constitution but in practice it is often lacking in implementation. That is why these kinds of laws are important.”

Ackerman disputes that the bill's implications for doctors are severe, because the sentence calls for 1-to-4-years, and people convicted of crimes punishable by a short prison term don’t end up going to prison.

“It’s a little bit exaggerated to say they’ll send doctors to jail,” he said.

According to Steve Mosher, President of the Population Research Institute, there are 8.5 million residents in Mexico City proper -- the so-called Federal District -- including 2.24 million women of reproductive age.