Analysis. Clandestine networks of activists have helped women in Mexico for years. Now they’re looking across the border into Texas.

Activists (and a robotic arm) help women access abortions in Mexico

Despite an important step forward in September, abortion in Mexico still continues to be a mirage. The National Supreme Court of Justice handed down three rulings decriminalizing the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, declaring unconstitutional the infamous Art. 196 of the Penal Code of the state of Coahuila and calling on the Mexican Parliament to establish impassable limits to the complete arbitrariness with which the status of conscientious objector has been used for years.

Although the rulings of the constitutional judges are valid throughout the country, they do not lead to an automatic change of the laws in force in 28 of the 31 states that make up the Mexican Federation, where the local anti-abortion provisions enjoy the support of a predominantly Catholic and ultra-conservative public opinion and voluntary abortion continues to be a criminal offence.

However, even if the road to guaranteeing women a full and effective right to make free choices about their bodies is still long and full of obstacles, the gap created by the laws has been partially covered by the action of solidarity networks. In Mexico, some underground networks have been active for decades, which have come to represent one of the backbones of the fragile national health system, taking on the difficult task of filling the existing gaps in abortion services throughout the country.

These groups are made up of activists who act on a voluntary basis and with a semi-clandestine status. They call themselves acompañantes and play a fundamental role of mediation, providing financial support, logistics, and information to all women who would like to express the need to terminate their pregnancies but end up being silenced every time by a stigma still deeply rooted in the collective imagination.

The driving force behind these informal assistance networks is the state of Tamaulipas, where the laws against abortion are particularly restrictive and those who help to perform an abortion risk up to three years in prison.

As a protest against one of the most anti-freedom laws in Mexico, in August, a group composed of 85 local feminist and abortionist associations organized one of the most spectacular and significant protest actions of recent years, finding a creative and original solution that allowed them to circumvent the strict legal provisions of the penal code of Tamaulipas.

The groups organized a permanent sit-in at the Plaza de Armas in the capital city of Tampico, where, via the mechanical arm of a robot renamed “RAborta” (remote-controlled from Mexico City, where abortion is allowed), they distributed free doses of misoprostol—a drug that induces abortion and is sold over the counter as a treatment for ulcers in a number of Mexican pharmacies—to anyone who requested it, allowing dozens of women to have an abortion without breaking the law. The initiative has proven successful and has been expanded to eleven states (Baja California, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Sonora, Sinaloa, Guanajuato, State of Mexico, Chiapas, Morelos, Tamaulipas and Nuevo León).

Tamaulipas is also the origin of AborTam, one of the longest-running Mexican networks of acompañantes in the country, which has set up a toll-free number and a 24-hour email address to provide initial support to anyone needing psychological support, legal assistance or guidance on the proper intake of misoprostol.

In recent months, Mexican abortion groups operating near the U.S. border have paid close attention to developments in the criminalization of abortion in Texas, gearing up to respond to the cross-border abortion demand that is expected to increase exponentially in the coming months. Since the controversial Senate Bill 8 went into effect—banning voluntary termination of pregnancy after six weeks, even in cases of rape and incest—these clandestine treatment cells are also becoming a focus for a growing number of American women.

This was also confirmed by an activist of the Marea Verde network, based in the state of Chihuahua, near West Texas, who, in an interview with the magazine Mother Jones, said that the group had established regular communication with several American pro-abortion associations in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, and is willing to increase its offer across the border. The message is clear: in Mexico, the price of misoprostol is far more affordable, and if Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s crusade against Texas women’s rights is carried to completion (an increasingly likely scenario, given that the Supreme Court has once again refused to block the implementation of SB8), the acompañantes networks will not stand idly by.

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