The XX Factor

Mexican Court Upholds Personhood Law

An activist holds a sign reading “For health, on violation or by decision. Legal abortion is a right” during a demonstration in Mexico City

Photo by ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images.

Bad news out of Mexico: the Supreme Court of Mexico fell one vote short of overturning the law of Baja California that extends personhood to embryos. Bad news in many ways, but the main one is that giving fertilized eggs personhood rights means depriving women of the same; two “persons” can’t really occupy the same body without one giving up their rights, and the law suggests that women should be the ones to give them up. In addition to its implications for abortion, personhood laws put women in a great deal of danger of seeing ordinary behavior criminalized. Defining embryos as “persons” gives the government wide discretion to terrorize and even prosecute women who have miscarriages and, of course, the long term hope of anti-choicers is that the laws will be used to ban the birth control pill by invoking unscientific arguments. Indeed, I have to wonder exactly why personhood laws have been passed in 18 Mexican states if not to expand state control over women’s bodies beyond banning abortion, since abortion was already independently banned in most of the country.

That’s the bad news. However, there is a silver lining in all of this. It wasn’t as clear-cut a victory as anti-choicers are claiming. The court could have overturned the law and left abortion illegal, after all, so it’s not like this was a Mexican Roe v Wade, as it was advertised. And a majority of the court, after all, agreed that the personhood law was unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the law requires a supermajority to overturn the law, but let’s be clear that seven justices voted in favor of women and only four in favor of anti-woman extremism. Even then, the justices who did vote against women’s rights appear to be hedging a bit, claiming that they were voting strictly on “states rights” grounds. Being American, I’m unclear if that is as much of a feeble cover story for bigotry in Mexico as it is in the U.S., but it’s a good sign that the justices aren’t trumpeting their role in this.

Mexico has a strong, vibrant, and often effective feminist movement, and I strongly suspect the rash of states passing “personhood” laws is as much a part of the angry backlash against feminism there as it is here. Women gain rights, and anti-feminists flip out and try to stomp them into the ground. It’s a predictable cycle. Feminists in Mexico have been able to get abortion legalized in Mexico City, and while implementing it has been a struggle, it’s a first step towards curtailing the illegal abortion problem in Mexico. (There are about 200,000 a year, with a death toll from botched illegal abortions around 1,500 a year.)  Mexican feminists seem to be out in the streets more frequently than in the U.S., often tying their issues more effectively to labor and anti-racism issues than American feminists are often capable of doing. Mexican feminists have also embraced Slutwalk, which goes by the name Marcha de las Putas. The Catholic Church has more influence in Mexico than it does here, but the tenacity of Mexican feminism is such that I wouldn’t bet against them in the long run.