In the Museum of Anthropology in Xalapa, Veracruz, there are figures of cihuateotl, representations of women who died in childbirth.
Eyes closed and mouths open, they were thought to have passed on to their next lives as warriors and were specifically charged with accompanying the sun each night as it made its way through the darkness.
Those statues have always sent a chill up my spine. For most of human history, childbirth has been the leading cause of death for fertile women; even today, it’s not as low on the list as one might think.
As you can probably guess, maternal death rates are higher in low- and middle-income countries. They increase with rates of individual poverty and with a decrease in the age of the mother under 20 years.
And as privileged as I am personally, my daughter and I would have joined the ranks of the dead had it not been for a quick-thinking, experienced and handsomely paid private doctor who got us through a near stroke from preeclampsia and a placenta that had become detached mere seconds before getting my daughter out at barely eight months of gestation.
And let me tell you something, people: that has been the easiest part of motherhood!
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading in horror about the goings-on in my home state of Texas, now the home of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the United States. It essentially allows literally anyone – anyone – to punish women for seeking out abortions and to get paid for it (US $10,000 if they win the case, plus their legal fees; if the other side “wins,” however, they get nothing).
I don’t know what you all think, but I’m pretty sure that it will give birth (ha! I can’t help myself) to the creepiest kind of bounty hunter-slash-entrepreneur I’ve ever heard of: “So, she thinks she’s going to get away with being an irresponsible slut, does she? Not on my watch!”
If the law holds, people will be able to make a living off forcing women to carry out their pregnancies, whatever the reasons they may have for possibly choosing not to be damned. (“If I can prevent just one abortion a month, I’ll break 120k a year!”)
At the same time, they get to sanctimoniously pretend that they’re not hurting the women themselves. The women can’t be sued, only every other person in their lives who might help them obtain an abortion; it’s indirect punishment through having a target on the heads of everyone else in their lives.
Who’d have thought that shifting our gazes south of the border would paint a sunnier picture for women’s reproductive rights? I know I was surprised.
Not long ago (in fact, mere weeks ago), women in Mexican states where abortion was illegal could be — and were — punished for seeking out abortions. In fact, just this year, 432 investigations were opened across Mexico into cases of illegal abortion, according to the New York Times.
By law, medical personnel are required to report to the authorities when they suspect a patient of theirs has committed a crime. Since abortion until very recently was a crime in the majority of Mexican states, many women desperate enough to not carry out a pregnancy that they were willing to risk their own lives have faced the decision after a risky DIY abortion gone wrong to either die as a result or go to the hospital to be arrested as soon as they’ve recovered enough to go to jail.
It’s been hard to get a completely accurate account of the exact numbers state by state, but there are currently thousands of women in jail in Mexico (who should hopefully be coming out any day now with clean records) for the crime of having an abortion or attempting to abort. Needless to say, women who had no intention to do so but had miscarriages are also in jail if someone suspected the miscarriage to have been induced and then went to the authorities with their accusations.
Thankfully, the Supreme Court of Mexico has just saved many women’s lives by declaring that the protection of life from conception is unconstitutional. A lot of work still needs to be done to ensure women’s safe access to abortion across the country, but similar to the way it ruled that marijuana possession and consumption is not a crime, they have just ruled that abortion before 12 weeks is also not a crime.
There is, of course, resistance, and I think a sizable portion of the population in Mexico would be perfectly happy to see a Texas-style across-the-board prohibition of the medical procedure. And in a country where the rule of law is far from strong, ensuring that women’s reproductive rights are respected will be a long and hard road.
The original version of this article, the part in my Word document that won’t be published, was angry.
Angry because an embryo or fetus’ life is always presumed by those against legalizing abortion to be more important than the life of the mother.
Angry because the anti-abortion movement is, at its core, about controlling women; if it were truly about preventing abortions, we’d be doing the many things proven to reduce its necessity to practically zero.
Angry about the priest who said women who aborted might as well be killed because they were useless, and about the many people I know who completely agree with him.
Angry about the assumption that women must be both sexual gatekeepers and 100% in charge of birth control while men get to pretend they’re not part of the equation of pregnancy at all.
Angry about how many of these men both want to have sex with women and also shame them afterward when there’s an “accident” after the fact — for having been willing to have sex with them in whatever circumstances they insisted on.
I’m tired of women being told to “close their legs” when even the most sexually willing woman can only carry one pregnancy to term in a year while a man can impregnate hundreds of women a year if he really puts his mind to it. (Seriously, have people who say this to women never had sex before? Open legs are not necessary, yo.)
Can we try “zip your pants back up” instead? Or how about mandatory vasectomies for every male when they hit puberty with paperwork and permission from their partners necessary to get them reversed?
I didn’t think so.
But for now, I’ll take this small victory and feel grateful of it. Well done, Mexico.