As Mexico expands abortion access, activists support reproductive rights at the U.S. border

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BY MARÍA TERESA HERNÁNDEZ

TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — It’s Sunday night and Crystal P. Lira is not answering her messages. Inside the headquarters of Colectiva Bloodys y Projects, an organization that has supported reproductive rights near the U.S.-Mexico border since 2016, her only concern is for the woman she has provided with a safe space to get an abortion.

Lira, who lives in Tijuana, in northern Mexico, is one among dozens of Mexican “acompañantes” — volunteers who support women wanting to terminate a pregnancy. Located all over the country, most acompañantes offer virtual guidance through an abortion protocol in which no clinics or prescriptions are needed.

Developed by activists after decades of facing abortion bans and restrictions in most of Mexico’s 32 states, the protocol encourages women to trust self-managed medication abortions following guidelines established by the World Health Organization.

“Accompaniment means that we facilitate information, medications and everything a woman needs to get a safe abortion at home,” Lira said. “But we also provide emotional support and support to fight stigma, religious and cultural barriers.”

Mexico’s Supreme Court recently ruled that national laws prohibiting abortions are unconstitutional and violate women’s rights. The ruling, which extended Latin American’s trend of widening abortion access, happened a year after the court’s U.S. counterpart went in the opposite direction.

The Mexican decision did not have the same immediate impact as Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing women’s access to abortion on a nationwide basis.

Although the Mexican ruling orders the removal of abortion from the federal penal code and requires federal health institutions to offer the procedure to anyone who requests it, further state-by-state legal work will be needed to remove all penalties.

“The court did not give a direct instruction to any local congress, but it sends a very clear signal of what congresses have to do,” said Sofia Aguiar, a lawyer at the Information Group for Chosen Reproduction, known by its Spanish initials GIRE.

For now, 20 Mexican states still criminalize abortion.

In Baja California, where Tijuana is located, abortion was decriminalized in 2021. By then, Lira had already gained five years’ experience as an acompañante.

“Ahead of starting an abortion network, I questioned myself: How did I get to this point? Why did I live what I lived, and what could have been different?” she said.

In 2012, Lira faced an unwanted pregnancy. “I didn’t know what to do, where to look for help,” she said.

On the recommendation of a friend, and due to her hometown’s proximity to the U.S. border, Lira made an appointment at a Planned Parenthood clinic in San Diego. She traveled back home with pills and a debt of $600 that she paid for her abortion.

Three years later, deeply conflicted by the inequality in abortion access, she became an activist and received training to become an acompañante.

“The easiest part was learning the abortion protocol,” she said. “The toughest was acquiring a political perspective, understanding how abortions are based on rights and freedom.”

Many reject her views in Mexico, a predominantly Catholic country.

Soon after the court’s ruling in early September, former actor and right-wing activist Eduardo Verástegui announced he will seek the presidency on an anti-abortion platform. “Say ‘yes’ to life and ‘no’ to abortion,” he has said, echoed by his followers.

Without mentioning him by name, the Catholic archbishop of Mexico City, Carlos Aguiar Retes, recently advocated voting for Verástegui in the 2024 election, and some Catholic, evangelical and anti-abortion groups have publicly supported him as well.

“We think it’s good to have a character like him,” said Rodrigo Iván Cortés, director of the National Family Front, an anti-abortion group. “He’s explicit about defending life and family.”

Abortion activists were not surprised by the conservative response to the court’s ruling.

“Historically, every progressive movement is followed by a setback from groups that organize against it,” said Aguiar from GIRE. “We saw it in the United States.”

Aguiar and her colleagues plan to keep advocating for reproductive rights. “We will continue working on issues like obstetric violence, maternal death and forced contraception,” Aguiar said.

At Colectiva Bloodys y Projects, Lira has plans of her own.

With a colleague who recently moved to San Diego, they hope to replicate some of their abortion strategies in California. “We want to migrate our perspectives,” Lira said. “To lead informative brigades and communicate that we can provide pills for those who can’t access abortion medication there.”

It’s no coincidence that Lira’s views are influenced by migration. The surge of migrants approaching the U.S. border, traveling from Colombia through the Darién jungle and moving up through Central America into Mexico, could approach 500,000 this year.

Venezuelans, Salvadorans, Haitians and Mexicans — internally displaced by violence — are among those who migrate by trains, buses and on foot. Along the way, thousands are victims of robbery, human trafficking and sexual abuse.

“We’ve been seeing women who suffer a lot of violence on their way to the United States,” Lira said.

Some migrants who wish to terminate their pregnancies contact them directly and others are channeled through shelters or midwives. “We have realized the need to support these women. … They experience violence, especially sexual, and need abortions,” said Minerva, another member of Colectiva Bloodys y Projects. For security reasons, she spoke on condition she be identified only by her first name.

Access to medication and a private space to get a self-managed abortion are particularly difficult for migrants, who can spend several months in shelters on the border.

“We want to accompany them,” Lira said. “But abortion access is just the tip of the iceberg. We expect to share key information for their physical and mental health.”

Joining forces with a local organization focused on reproductive health, Lira and activist Monica Rosas will offer an informative workshop on fertility and the reproductive cycle by mid-October at a church-affiliated shelter where up to 1,700 migrants are currently waiting to enter the U.S.

“We will create a space for self-knowledge as a tribe,” Rosas said.

The program includes body literacy — naming parts of the anatomy free of taboos — and dances to celebrate the female body.

“We would love for these women who are passing through, waiting for an opportunity to cross, to carry this information with them,” Lira said. “Our bodies are powerful and, if we know them, that can help us reach our own identity.”

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