"Legal, not Moral": Mexico’s Supreme Court Annuls Pivotal Abortion Ban

by Samuel B. Parker



In 2018, Mexico’s Supreme Court began to review legal challenges to abortion laws in the northern state of Coahuila. These laws contained provisions that recognized human life at conception and proscribed abortion at any period during pregnancy¹. Three years later, ten of the eleven judges on the bench of the highest court in Mexico have voted to annul those provisions, making it illegal for state and local governments to punish abortion as a crime. While the immediate results of this decision apply only to criminal law in Coahuila, both Mexico’s Supreme Court as well as pro-choice activists have already announced their intentions to implement this ruling and the criteria it introduces in order to decriminalize abortion on a national level².


Aside from the fact that the opinion of the court was constructed upon the usual arguments that do not address conventional objections related to both embryology and ethics, the ruling is concerning for several reasons.


One of these reasons is the fact that the ruling is not indicative of Mexican public opinion on the issue of abortion. As of January 2021, less than half of the general population of Mexico supported the decriminalization of abortion³. More significantly, in Coahuila, the latest flashpoint of the international abortion debate, at least 68% of people do not think that “the law must allow women the right to abortion.”⁴ The criminal code adopted by the state of Coahuila directly reflected regional sentiment regarding abortion, and the decision of Mexico’s Supreme Court to overrule local proceedings represents a concerted attack on an ostensibly federalist structure of government. In other words, under the pretext of defending and promoting individual autonomy, Mexico’s Supreme Court has disempowered citizens by refusing their right to affect the legal and moral systems to which they are subject. Statistically, the state of Coahuila and the nation of Mexico are pro-life, but Mexico’s Supreme Court has denied the convictions and the intentions of the people it serves.


More importantly, and perhaps more ominously, rhetoric on the unfolding events in Mexico has revealed a dangerous sentiment. In a recent interview, professor and expert legal analyst Leticia Bonifaz remarked that “the issue being discussed is legal,… not moral.”⁵ Denying the inherently moral dimension of law establishes a demonstrably dangerous precedent. And certainly, Mexico’s Supreme Court believes that it has a moral case: that the prerogative of pregnant people to make decisions about their own bodies must be safeguarded.


And yet, the justifications that the members of Mexico’s Supreme Court provided were largely pragmatic. In a public statement concerning the decision, Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar asserted that abortion is a “crime that… punishes poverty.”⁶ To be sure, this point is indeed a reasonable one: pregnant people who are impoverished are less likely to have the monetary or material capacity to support a child, and thus are more likely to abort; comparatively higher rates of abortion among particular demographics will yield the disproportionate penalization of people within those demographics. But it is not a moral point, because it affords no counter to legitimate claims that human life begins at and deserves legal protections from conception, and because it superficially and haphazardly addresses systemic indigence, treating abortion as a harmless and inevitable byproduct of poverty rather than seeking to eliminate the underlying causes of that poverty. Essentially, Mexico’s Supreme Court has noticed that marginalized and vulnerable people are more likely to be forced by their circumstances into having an abortion, but instead of proclaiming a commitment to ameliorating the economic circumstances and physical factors that engender such desperate necessity, they have settled for mandating easier access to abortion. This “legal, but not moral” position contends that, whether or not abortion is violent, poverty offers no other choice.


If it is true that poverty leads to increased incidents of abortion, it is also true that reducing poverty will reduce abortions. Going forward, the Mexican government should work to ensure that resources are available to any person who desires to have a baby, which would render the purely practical aspects of the poverty argument moot and recenter the dialogue on the moral and ethical implications of abortion. Mexico’s Supreme Court cannot simply end poverty. But if it considers poverty to be sufficient grounds to warrant the decriminalization of abortion, it ought to focus its time and efforts on improving quality of life for people whose destitution has driven them to terminate their pregnancies. Legal access to abortion does not solve the issues that poverty presents; it merely creates additional victims.


A consistent life ethic maintains the intrinsic value of all human beings. This, of course, includes the unborn. But it also encompasses people who are poor, pregnant, and see no viable alternative to abortion. Unfortunately, Mexico’s Supreme Court has not taken effective action in this instance on behalf of either group.


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