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Despite Mexico's Supreme Court ruling, the fight for abortion rights continues in Sonora

Hundreds of women march down the streets of the Sonoran capital Hermosillo, decked out in green bandanas and carrying brightly colored signs with witty phrases that echo their chants calling for access to safe, legal abortion.

“Aborto si! Aborto no! Eso lo decido yo!” they shout. “Abortion yes! Abortion no! That's my decision.”

It’s Sept. 28 — International Safe Abortion Day — when, for decades, women across Latin America have protested to demand abortion rights.

This year, the march comes just weeks after a landmark decision by Mexico’s Supreme Court striking down an abortion lawin the northern state of Coahuila, and ruling that all laws criminalizing abortion are unconstitutional.

“Today is a historic day for the rights of all Mexican women and pregnant people,” the court’s Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar said in a video posted to social media just after the ruling. “We’re all in favor of life, the only thing that’s happening is that some of us are in favor of the lives of women being lives in which their dignity is respected, in which they can fully exercise their rights, in which they are free of violence and which they can self-determine their destinies.”

The decision has been met with resistance from opposition groups. Despite growing public acceptance in recent years, support for abortion rights remains a minority position in Mexico.

Still, as parts of the United States implement laws more heavily restricting access to abortion, in Mexico, things could be headed in another direction. And activists said the Supreme Court’s ruling has brought them renewed hope.

“I’m happy,” said Francisca Duarte, laughing as she looked around at hundreds of women gathered at the march in Hermosillo. “I’m happy the fight continues.”

Duarte has been protesting for abortion rights since the 1970s, and she said while the Supreme court’s decision is late in coming, she has no doubt it will be a huge step forward for the rights of women and pregnant people in Sonora across Mexico. Most importantly, she said, it will make it much more difficult to prosecute someone for terminating an a pregnancy. It also gives activists more leverage to push for change, she said.

Nearby, Yolanda Vazquez said she credits women like Duarte for helping to make this change possible.

“This is a reflection of women’s fight year after year,” she said. “And I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful with this decision and with the new government leaders, a big change is coming.”

Restrictions In Sonora

Still, there’s a long way to go, particularly in states like Sonora, said Gabriella Herrera, the founder Jurídicas Feministas, a nonprofit that provides legal services to women and girls in Sonora.

“Sonora is among the most extreme states in this area,” she said. “In general, Sonora is among the most violent and repressive states in Mexico. Domestic violence, kidnappings, murders and repressive abortion laws are all part of that.”

Sonora’s anti-abortion laws are among the most punitive in Mexico. People charged with terminating a pregnancy face up to six years in prison - twice as long as the three-year cap in the now overturned Coahuila law.

At least six women are currently serving sentences in Sonora for receiving abortions, according to advocates. Another 10 abortion investigations have been filed so far this year in the state, according to data from the National Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women. Nationwide, 432 such investigations were opened from January through July 2021.

Sonora’s current law only makes exceptions in cases of rape or health risk up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, and requires women to go though an arduous process to prove the qualify.

And while the new ruling should prevent future criminal investigations, it doesn’t immediately make abortion more accessible in states like Sonora. That will take legislative action or further challenges in the courts.

“It's a public health problem. And it's right,” Herrera said. “And whether it’s recognized or not, women will continue exercising that right.”

While only four of Mexico’s 32 stateshave broadly legalized abortions, she said they happen every day, all across the country.

“Measures that restrict that right only push people into unsafe situations, and put their lives at risk,” she said. “We’re not talking about myths or beliefs here. This is something guaranteed by the law. And the law says restricting abortion is unconstitutional.”

Abortion groups in Sonora say in the last 18 months more than 5,000 women and girls have sought their help. Untold others have risked unsafe methods. Experts estimate that about a million abortions are carried out in Mexico every year.

Abortion Care

As the protest wraps up, women gather in front of the state congress building, now covered with pro-abortion messages and symbols in black spray paint. They chant “legal abortion in the hospital" - one of their principal demands.

“There are many women and girls who have become pregnant after a rape, but even though they should be able to get a legal abortion in a hospital, they are afraid to go,” said Andrea Sanchez with the activist group Marea Verde. “And we understand why. We have checked ourselves and hospitals don’t understand their obligations under the law. And they aren’t providing pregnant people the services they need.”

Throughout Mexico, prejudice among some medical professionals, a lack of training and federal laws that required doctors and nurses to report patients have created a hostile atmosphere for many people seeking abortion care. Even in states that have legalized the procedure, there have been challenges with some medical workers refusing to participate, calling themselves “conscientious objectors.”

Groups that provide “accompaniment,” or assistance for people seeking safe abortions outside of the hospital, are saving lives, Sanchez said. But they can’t help everyone. As they continue to fight for abortion rights, activists know they can’t just change laws — culture and practices will have to shift too.

Their work won’t be over, she said, until all people in Mexico have access safe abortions at hospitals.

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Kendal Blust, an Arizona native, reports from KJZZ’s bureau in Hermosillo, Sonora, focusing on business and economic relationships between Arizona and northern Mexico.Prior to joining KJZZ, Kendal worked at the Nogales International, reporting on border and immigration issues, local government, education and business. While working on her master’s degree at University of Arizona School of Journalism, she did stints with the Arizona Daily Star and the Tico Times in Costa Rica, and completed a thesis project about women art activists in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands.In her pre-journalist life, Kendal was a teacher, first helping Spanish high school students learn English, then heading to Tucson to teach fourth grade.When she’s not in the newsroom, Kendal enjoys getting outside for a hike or a swim, catching a good movie, hanging out with family and friends, and eating great food.