On May 1, a familiar anti-abortion story line played out on Azteca 13, a popular television channel in Mexico. In the opening scenes of an episode of Lo Que Callamos Las Mujeres (What We Women Keep Silent), a Lifetime-like telenovela series about "real-life" stories, a pretty brunette with a heart-shaped face, Alondra, discovers she is pregnant when overtaken by a sudden bout of morning sickness. Her sister Sofía is concerned, but later that night, when Alondra's boorish boyfriend comes home and she breaks the news, he asks if it's his, then tells her to abort.
Alondra complies and, in a series of hazy scenes, visits a clandestine abortion provider. But she's haunted by what she has done, and is awoken at night by phantom baby cries that send her searching throughout her apartment until she collapses on the living room floor, her white pajama bottoms soaked through with blood. Her illegal abortion was botched, it turns out, and by terminating her pregnancy, a doctor tells her sister, she has forfeited her fertility as well. Some weeks later, Alondra's boyfriend is accosted on the street by another woman, also pregnant by him, who begs him to acknowledge his future child. Sheepishly, he does, shrugging as he tells Alondra, "I’m going to be a papa," before walking out the door to be with the other woman — the one who didn't abort.
The message seems clear enough, but the story doesn't end there. Two years later, when Alondra meets a good man who wants a family, she pushes the memory of the abortion out of her mind. In a state of manic delusion, she experiences a hysterical pregnancy, her belly swelling with her hopes, until Sofía forces her to see a doctor and Alondra breaks down, confronted with her unresolved grief. As Alondra again lies in a hospital bed, two years wiser and infinitely sadder, the doctor hands her a pamphlet. On its back cover, facing the camera, is the logo of the Instituto para la Rehabilitación de la Mujer y la Familia, or IRMA, a Mexican Catholic ministry that offers counseling for women suffering "post-abortion syndrome" — the medically unrecognized claim that terminating a pregnancy leads to serious psychological trauma.
The May episode of Lo Que Callamos was one of several instances in which IRMA was invited to suggest a "true-life" story line for the show, broadcasting to millions of viewers its message that abortion causes devastating harm to women and their families. One episode alone had generated some 200 calls and 400 e-mails to IRMA in a single day, said María del Carmen Alva López, IRMA’s president and founder, when I met her last October.
"They take a real story from us, a real history, and then at the end the lady goes to IRMA and receives help," explained Alva, a cheerful 42-year-old with beauty-pageant poise. In a lush Mexico City suburb full of gated houses, Alva sat me down on a pleather loveseat in IRMA's small, stucco-walled counseling room. The bookshelves outside were lined with copies of Alva's book, Y después del aborto, ¿que? (And After the Abortion, What?), and in her hands she held a thick binder containing the results of a survey of 135 clients. Of these 135 "post-abortive" women, said Alva, her smile dimming and her eyes heavy with sympathy, IRMA estimates that 70 percent have clinical depression and 10 percent have attempted suicide. Results like these, she says, prove that post-abortion syndrome is real.
That these numbers are gathered from a self-selecting group of women who have sought out IRMA's services doesn’t dampen Alva's conviction that all Mexican women need to hear how abortion can hurt them. They especially need to hear it now, Alva believes. It's been six years since first-trimester abortions were decriminalized in Mexico's Distrito Federal, home to Mexico City, and more and more Mexican women are gradually learning about their limited right to choose — although abortion rights advocates fear this message hasn't yet made its way to provincial, working-class women.
In this atmosphere, the claims about post-abortion syndrome and other supposed risks advanced by groups like IRMA are having real effects. According to Dr. Raffaela Schiavon, director of the Mexican chapter of the international abortion rights group Ipas and a former ob/gyn who served in Mexico’s Ministry of Health, a 2012 study suggests that Mexican women decide whether or not to have an abortion based not on their religion, politics or socioeconomic status, but rather on their fears that an abortion will hurt or kill them. The main difference for women, said Schiavon, is whether or not they've received information that abortion causes breast cancer, infertility, depression or suicide — exactly the information IRMA is helping to spread around the nation.
"They've gotten out the message that abortion is unsafe and dangerous," Schiavon said. Ironically, she added, "that is the case when it's illegal."
When Mexico City’s law changed in 2007, allowing elective abortions in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, it was a substantial victory for reproductive rights advocates in a country, and a region, where the Catholic Church dominates daily life. Across Latin America, access to legal abortion is a rarity, and in 2007, all eyes turned to Mexico City to see how the experiment would play out — and whether it could be replicated. To date, only Uruguay has followed Mexico City in liberalizing its abortion law, and this June, the world watched as El Salvador denied a lifesaving abortion to a woman known as Beatriz for five months before finally allowing a C-section delivery for the nonviable fetus.
After decriminalization, however, a fierce backlash unfurled across Mexico. In the first three years, half of the country's thirty-one provinces passed new constitutional amendments enshrining abortion bans — two of which were just upheld by Mexico's Supreme Court this May. As a result of the amendments passed after 2007 in eighteen Mexican states, women in the provinces are increasingly being prosecuted for "attempted abortion," often reported by hospital staff when they seek help after self-abortions, unsupervised use of the medical abortion drug misoprostol or unsafe back-alley terminations.
Regina Tames, a lawyer and executive director of the reproductive rights advocacy group GIRE (Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida) worked with several of the dozens of women being prosecuted for attempted abortion in 2012. If convicted, some of these women could face up to six years in jail, while others would be sentenced to fines or community service. Many were already condemned in their communities after newspapers printed their pictures and identified them as criminals and baby killers.
In Mexico’s so-called "Rosary Belt," a band of ultraconservative states like Jalisco and Guanajuato in the center of the nation, anti-abortion advocates and other traditionalists are embracing US-style culture war tactics and rhetoric. Conservative Mexican Catholics have mobilized across the provinces to Catholicize public school education, block public health announcements for condoms, and even destroy public school books that contain comprehensive sex ed. Some anti-abortion activists have marched under a powerful old symbol: the flag of the 1920s Cristero War, which pitted devout Catholics against a secularizing government that persecuted religious expression. The bloody conflict resulted in atrocities on both sides, including priests being executed among their flocks — some since canonized as martyrs of the faith — and a 2012 film about the war has resonated with conservatives in both Mexico and the United States. (US Catholic commentator George Weigel recently went so far as to compare the contraception mandate in Obamacare to the legacy of the persecuted Cristeros.) Waving the flag now helps cast the terms of Mexico’s current abortion debate as a new clash in an ongoing war over religious freedom. Some abortion rights advocates say there’s a sense that today’s Mexican right "has the Cristero spirit again."