Mexico City, Mexico – In the middle of the global pandemic crisis, Maria Muñoz, a 26 year-old journalist, found herself facing an unwanted pregnancy in Mexico City. Fearful of contracting COVID-19 at a hospital or clinic she decided to abort at home, with assistance coming via the popular messaging service, WhatsApp.
An increasing number of women in Mexico are turning to online support networks who advise them on how to use misoprostol, an over-the-counter ulcer medicine, to abort.
Maria found about this network through a friend, contacted them and was added to a WhatsApp group alongside psychologists, and what they call “abortion accompaniers”. They checked in with her frequently to see how she was feeling, sent her infographics on where to get misoprostol, how to take the pills, what she should eat beforehand and sent her reminders so she would keep to the proper administration schedule.
While Muñoz lives in Mexico City, one of two places in Mexico where abortion is legal until the 12th week of pregnancy, she still opted for the home-online support option. “I decided to do it at home because many times you go to the clinic and there are anti-right groups that attack you,” she told Al Jazeera. COVID-19, economic accessibility and the ability to have her partner by her side also contributed to her decision.
Following her abortion she was added to a WhatsApp group of women across Mexico who had been through the process and wanted to share their experiences. “It really affected me to listen to women who aborted where it was not legal and they had to suffer from double fear – the fear of aborting and also the fear of being incarcerated for abortion when they are in such a vulnerable moment,” added Muñoz.
In 30 Mexican states, women’s options to abort are very limited. The legal termination of pregnancy is only permitted under certain circumstances including rape or health factors that put the woman’s life at risk. Abortion was legalised in Oaxaca in 2019 yet very few clinics provide it as a service, making women’s access there basically non-existent.
The reproductive justice collective Morras Help Morras, which translates to Girls Help Girls, has assisted women across Mexico to terminate their pregnancies. The group receives on average nine to 10 requests a day from women interested in terminating their unwanted pregnancy at home, said Sofia, the organisation’s co-director, who did not want to share her last name as she could face legal repercussions. They have tens of thousands of followers on social media networks helping them reach women all over the country.
Sofia starts her workday on a computer screen full of open social network windows; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp.
A young woman writes to her on Facebook: “I’m 15 years old, I know I’m very young. I don’t know if I’m pregnant. I really don’t want to be, because I have so many family problems.” Sofia responded gently, and explained that the first step is to take an at-home pregnancy test. She reassures her, “Relax, we’re here for you.”
Sofia has received training that qualifies her to be an abortion companion. She is not a medical professional and has recommended those who are terminating their pregnancy to speak with gynaecologists or doctors who are part of their network, if they have any complications.
“Clandestine is not a synonym for dangerous. Clandestine means [aborting] in an illegal manner but from within the underground we provide objective, scientific information,” Sofia told Al Jazeera. “Women need to have access to safe abortions because it is their right, it’s a matter of autonomy.”
Since COVID-19 shelter-at-home orders were declared in Mexico on March 23, 2020, reproductive justice advocates have documented the increased difficulties that women have faced in obtaining abortions. Prior to the pandemic, the NGO Fondo Maria provided economic assistance to dozens of women every year to help them travel to Mexico City where they could have abortions in a free and legal manner.
According to government statistics, 71,418 women from across Mexico aborted within Mexico City between the years 2007 and 2020. During the height of the pandemic, only five of the 13 abortion clinics in the city remained open.
“Abortion access was already a challenge and the pandemic has intensified the difficulties,” said Sofia Garduño, an advocate with Fondo Maria. While the Mexico City government declared abortion an essential service, there was little clarity about which clinics were open, and access to contraceptives diminished as women feared leaving home as COVID cases skyrocketed across the enormous metropolis.
Garduño also emphasised the importance of groups that accompany women via social networks who want to terminate their pregnancy during the pandemic. “Many women find themselves at home alongside their entire family and they cannot just make a phone call to obtain the necessary information. That is why we started communicating with them via more discrete methods via social networks,” Garduño told Al Jazeera.
Garduño believes high unemployment levels and the economic crisis that accompanied the pandemic, as well as increased levels of domestic violence have led many women to seek out abortions over the past year.
The legal battle
Last December, following a long battle waged by feminist activists, Argentina decriminalised abortion up until 14 weeks. This galvanised the “Marea Verde” or Green Wave pro-choice movement across Latin America. In Mexico, women sporting bright green bandanas poured into the streets demanding that their government do the same.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who holds daily press conferences, has avoided responding to questions about abortion. When he was asked after the Argentinian vote if he would decriminalise abortion he suggested an informal referendum. “For very controversial decisions I have always thought that it is best to consult the population and not impose anything on them,” he said. “In this case, the women can freely decide.”
— Morras Help Morras (@helpmorras) March 31, 2021
The non-profit organisation Group for Information on Reproduction and Choice, (GIRE) has been fighting for the past 29 years to legalise abortion in Mexico and it does not support a public referendum. “We are talking about human rights, and women have to decide about their bodies. It is not a decision that should be decided by a popular vote,” said Rebeca Ramos, the director of GIRE.
“The legalisation debate is now in the field of the state governments,” Ramos told Al Jazeera.
Mexico City has mandated that women can now abort in the case of rape up until the 20th week, whereas in normal circumstances it is permitted until 12 weeks.
There are three cases to be decided by the Supreme Court challenging state laws in Sinaloa and Coahuila that state that life starts at the moment of conception, as well as a challenge to a health law that would ban medical professionals from refusing to administer abortions in cases when the women’s life is at risk. In July 2020, Mexico’s top court ruled against a proposal to legalise abortion in the state of Veracruz.
Ningún imperio puede contra nosotras 😎 Celebremos este #MayTheFourth disfrutando nuestra autonomía 💚💜 Resistamos juntas, el Fondo MARIA y la fuerza están contigo 💪 #MayThe4thBeWithYou pic.twitter.com/sMWvF32VPi
— Fondo MARIA (@FondoMARIAmx) May 4, 2021
In the states of Puebla and Quintana Roo, activists have taken over state congress buildings hoping to push their agenda for reproductive rights. On Saturday, the Puebla State Parliament will convene and pro-choice activists will be pushing for the legal termination of pregnancy to be debated. A 94-day sit-in in the state of Quintana Roo helped force abortion onto the agenda there in March. Legislators voted against decriminalising.
Activists have said the vote itself is a victory and have challenged the decision with legal appeals, called amparos.
As long as abortion remains illegal for most Mexican women, groups like Morras Help Morras, Fondo Maria and others say they will keep filling the void and providing women with information on how to abort safely in their own homes.
You can follow Andalusia K Soloff on Twitter and Instagram at @andalalucha