Mexico’s Supreme Court upholds Baja California abortion law

By Laura MacPhee

On 28 September, Mexico’s Supreme Court upheld an amendment to Baja California’s state constitution, which declares that life begins at conception. Abortion is a notoriously sensitive issue and this move was bound to inflame debate, both in Mexico and around the world. However, much of the coverage it has received has been simplistic, and occasionally misleading.

It is in the interests of campaigners and the press to present a sensationalised version of events, implying that this is a great moral victory for the pro-life lobby. What it really came down to was a question of constitutional law – can one state legislate on an issue which is not addressed in the Mexican constitution? The issue here is one of state powers, rather than the content of the amendment itself.

Under Mexican Constitutional Law, eight votes were required to overturn the existing amendment on the grounds that the state did not have the power to legislate on this issue (because it did not appear in the federal constitution and not because it was deemed inappropriate subject matter for legislation per se). Only seven justices thought that this measure was unconstitutional, and so the written law was applied with the result that both the amendment and the rule of law were upheld.

Although this decision does turn on that technical point, it would admittedly be misguided to ignore the substantive issues. These have too often been presented in a biased manner. A particularly glaring example of this is offered by the BBC’s choice of vocabulary. Those in favour of the measure were given the negative label “anti-abortion”, whilst their opponents were positively “pro-choice”. This practice crudely undermines one side of the debate. Whatever views one holds on the issue, this cannot be said to be fair. Much of what I have read about this case has either implicitly or explicitly condemned the outcome (and its proponents), which struck me as extremely inappropriate, given that the subject-matter is so contentious.

Contrary to what many would have readers believe, it is not universally accepted that life doesn’t begin at conception. This was not an amendment which declared that the earth is flat. Yet this stance has been belittled almost as if it were. We are consistently reminded of the importance of cultural sensitivity in our own communities, so why should we be so quick to forget that when it comes to international news?

If we think about this for a moment, then we can see that there is at least one clear rationale behind this amendment. The Baja Californian population is overwhelmingly catholic, and this amendment reflects one of the teachings of the Catholic Church. By no means am I advocating a departure from the constitutional separation of church and state. I am merely pointing out that this amendment may well convey the genuinely held views of the Baja Californian people. Is that not what democracy demands? There would have been multiple decision-making processes before the legislation reached this stage – it was not thought up on a whim and should not be dismissed as such.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the state was entitled to the autonomy to legislate on this matter as it deemed appropriate. The outcome may have come as a relief to pro-life campaigners in Baja California, but the real victor here is positive law.

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