How would abortion be handled in Mexico with a female president?

Apr 29, 2024, 7:00 AM | Updated: 12:24 pm

Xochitl Galvez, right, and Claudia Sheinbaum, left. If a woman wins Mexico’s presidency on June 2...

Xochitl Galvez, right, and Claudia Sheinbaum, left. If a woman wins Mexico’s presidency on June 2, would she rule with gender in mind? (Manuel Velasquez / Stringer)

(Manuel Velasquez / Stringer)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — If a woman wins Mexico’s presidency on June 2, would she rule with gender in mind?

The question has been raised by academics, humans rights organizations and activists ahead of the voting that will likely elect Mexico’s first female president for the term 2024-2030.

Related: Utah’s Attorney General calls for Supreme Court to restrict access to an abortion pill

Out of three candidates, the frontrunner is Claudia Sheinbaum, who has promised to keep President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s legacy on track. Next comes Xóchitl Gálvez, representing several opposition parties, one of which is historically conservative.

The triumph of Sheinbaum or Gálvez, however, would not guarantee their support for certain gender-related policies.

In a country of more than 98 million Catholics, neither of the two leading candidates has shared specific proposals on abortion. Both have suggested equality and protection measures for women amid a wave of violence and femicide.

Here’s a look at some of the challenges that Mexico’s next president would face regarding abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.

What’s the current abortion landscape in Mexico?

Twelve of Mexico’s 32 states have decriminalized abortion, most of them in the past five years. One more will join them after its legislature complies with a recent court’s ruling, demanding a reform in its penal code.

A few more states allow abortion if the mother’s life is in danger, and it is legal nationwide if the pregnancy is the result of rape.

Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in 2023 that national laws prohibiting abortions are unconstitutional and violate women’s rights. The ruling, which extended Latin America’s trend of widening abortion access, happened a year after the U.S. Supreme Court went in the opposite direction, overturning the 1973 ruling that established a nationwide right to abortion.

The Mexican ruling orders the removal of abortion from the federal penal code.  And it requires federal health institutions to offer the procedure to anyone who requests it.  Further state-by-state legal work is pending to remove all penalties.

In most of the states where it has been decriminalized, abortion-rights activists say they face persistent challenges in trying to make abortion safe, accessible and government-funded.

To address restrictions and bans, dozens of volunteers — known as “acompañantes” — have developed a nationwide network to share information on self-managed medication abortions following guidelines established by the World Health Organization.

Could a new government strike down the constitutional right to abortion in Mexico?

Whoever wins, the next president would not directly affect abortion legislation, since each state has autonomy over its penal code.

However, the president could indeed have an impact as a moral authority among the members of his or her party, said Ninde Molina. Molina is lawyer at Abortistas MX, an organization specializing in abortion litigation strategies.

“Much of the governors’ behavior emulates what the president does,” Molina said.

She’s among activists who worry that neither Sheinbaum nor Galvez have shared specific proposals. Namely, regarding abortion, LGBTQ+ rights and the protection of migrants.

“Such lukewarm proposals send the message that these are not fundamental rights,” Molina said.

She wouldn’t immediately worry about a setback on abortion policy. But she said the scenario would change if López Obrador or Sheinbaum managed to get the approval of judiciary reform aiming to replace the current judges with new ones elected by popular vote.

“The court is also in danger,” Molina said. “People may find this (electing the judges) attractive, but they don’t realize what it entails.”

If, for example, an abortion case reaches the Supreme Court and its current composition has changed, then a setback could indeed happen, Molina said.

What do the conservatives think? 

Isaac Alonso, from Viva México Movement, which supported right-wing activist Eduardo Verástegui’ s presidential aspirations, thinks that neither Sheinbaum nor Gálvez represent Mexico’s conservative interests.

In his ranks, he said, no one is in favor of criminalizing women who have abortions. They firmly believe abortion is unjustifiable. They would hope for government policies that encourage births through improvements in the adoption system.

Rodrigo Iván Cortés, director of the National Family Front, an anti-abortion group, said the current administration could not be considered an ally. “Before 2018, abortion had only been approved in Mexico City,” he said.

“It is very relevant to say how the Supreme Court, under the leadership of Arturo Saldívar, had an ideological bias,” said Cortés about a judge who currently advises Sheinbaum.

Still, he said, despite who wins the elections, his organization will continue “to take care of the first and fundamental of rights: life.”

What’s needed to rule from a feminist perspective?

“Just because a woman wins does not guarantee a gender perspective at all,” said Pauline Capdevielle, an academic from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“In fact, what we are seeing are strategies by conservative sectors to create a façade of feminism. (It) opposes the feminist tradition.”

A true change, Capdevielle said, would start by integrating feminists into the government.

“It is not about putting women where there were none, but about politicizing these issues and really promoting a transformation.”

Some feminists have shown support for Sheinbaum, but both she and López Obrador have also received criticism for their lack of empathy towards women who protest against gender violence.

Amnesty International and other organizations have denounced excessive use of force against women during International Women’s Day protests and say that Mexican women’s right to protest has been stigmatized.

According to Capdevielle, some of the issues to be addressed in Mexico’s gender agenda are reproductive justice and women’s participation in political processes.

“The right to get an abortion must be consolidated,” she said. “It is far from being a reality for all women.”

Comprehensive sexual education, access to contraceptives and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community should be prioritized as well, Capdevielle said.

What about LGBTQ+ rights?

“The needs of this community are not likely to figure prominently in Mexico’s presidential elections,” said Cristian González Cabrera, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Gay and transgender populations are regularly attacked and killed in Mexico, a nation marked by its “macho” culture and highly religious population. Human rights organization Letra S documented more than 500 homicides of LGBTQ+ people in the last six years, 58 of them in 2023.

The latest deaths came in 2024, with the murder of three members of the transgender community. This group, along with migrants, are particularly vulnerable to attacks, Gonzalez Cabrera said.

“LGBT migrants continue to suffer abuse from criminal groups and Mexican officials,” he said. “Too often, these human rights violations are not effectively investigated or punished.”

Sheinbaum said in 2023 that, as Mexico City’s mayor, she created a special unit for trans people. She said her dream would be to continue fighting on behalf of sexual diversity, but did not go into specifics.

As for Gálvez, she showed support for women “from the sexual diversity,” but also did not delve into specifics.

González Cabrera highlights that since 2022 all Mexican states recognize same-sex marriage. But some LGBTQ+ rights are not yet guaranteed nationwide.

“There are 11 states where the legal recognition of gender identity for trans people is not possible through administrative means. This is despite a Supreme Court’s ruling recognizing this right,” he said.

For there to be an agenda in favor of the LGBTQ+ population, González Cabrera said, a government should approach the communities’ organizations. It should learn about their needs.  Allocate resources to address violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It should support LGBTQ+ migrants and encourage local governments to align their legislation with the court’s rulings on their rights.

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How would abortion be handled in Mexico with a female president?