Jennifer Nelson on the abortion debate in Mexico and the United States
The Summer 2022 issue of Journal of Women's History is a special issue on Reproduction, Contraception, and Obstetrics in Modern Mexico. The issue was guest edited by Laura Shelton and Martha Liliana Espinosa Tavares and includes a comprehensive collection of articles that illustrate "how Mexican obstetricians, mothers, feminists, scientists, and politicians understood the intersections of reproduction and birth control with the politics of national identity and modernization over the course of a century." In her article Feminism, Human Rights, and Abortion Debates in Mexico, Jennifer Nelson looks in detail at a short period of explosive national debate about the issue in Mexico. We are grateful for her taking some time to discuss her research with us in more detail.
Can you tell us a bit about your "academic origin story"? What is your specific area of research? What brought you to your area of academic focus?
I was a Semiotics/Modern Culture and Media major at Brown, which for me was a major focused on feminist theory. Towards the end of my undergraduate studies, I realized my understanding of women’s historical experiences was lacking. After graduation, I had also become increasingly interested in reproductive rights politics as a volunteer with Planned Parenthood and an activist in New York City with the organization WHAM! (Women, Health, Action and Mobilization).
One of the political lessons I learned during that time (from more experienced feminist activists) was that the abortion rights movement had long struggled (and often failed) to make itself relevant to women of color because of its narrow focus on securing and protecting abortion rights. When I started the PhD program in US history at Rutgers in 1992, my dissertation advisor, Alice Kessler Harris, suggested I pay attention to the historical fight against sterilization abuse led by women of color and poor women as well as the struggle for legal abortion. As a result, my dissertation, which became my first book, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement, focused on how women of color pushed the mostly white feminist movement to address reproductive politics more broadly—to include protections from forced and coerced sterilization and economic support for women who wanted children—which became the Reproductive Justice movement.
My focus on Mexico occurred much later in my career after moving to Southern California and learning Spanish. I became interested in comparing the feminist movement in Latin America and the United States. My research now focuses on both the feminist movement to decriminalize abortion in Mexico as well as the pro-life movement in Mexico.
Your paper, Feminism, Human Rights, and Abortion Debates in Mexico details the national debate that took place 1991 over a law passed by the Chiapas state legislature to decriminalize abortion for reasons of contraceptive failure or poverty. What led you to focus your research on this very specific moment in history?
I found documents in the archive that alerted me to the importance of this historical moment. While I was going through the Ana Victoria Jiménez Collection at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, I came across numerous press clippings from 1991 debating the late 1990 legalization of abortion by the legislature in the state of Chiapas. This was a surprise to me, as I hadn’t realized the movement to decriminalize abortion in Mexico had any success (or even near success) until 2000 in Mexico City when a local law was passed to expand the exceptions allowing legal abortion (the so-called Robles law expanded the exceptions for risk to health and fetal malformation). Interestingly, the Chiapas law was not actually motivated by feminist activism, although many feminists welcomed the proposed change.
You detail how human rights claims were being used by both antiabortionists and the abortion decriminalization campaign. Why is the use of human rights discourse "politically problematic" in this debate?
I think the flexibility of “human rights” claims is the most interesting part of the debate over abortion in Mexico, and a subject I’m still working to understand as I continue my research. Both the feminist and the pro-life movements have claimed human rights protections to back their positions, which in Mexico is possible because Mexico has had a human rights provision in its constitution since 2011 and a federal Human Rights Commission since 1990. The constitutional provision elevates international human rights treaties ratified by Mexico to the level of constitutional protections. This is a robust protection of human rights, at least on paper.
As I dig deeper into the Mexican context around human rights, I’m learning that the period from the late 1980s through the 1990s was pivotal for human rights conversations and debates. The National Human Rights Commission was established in 1990 to address state violence and as a partial response to criticism of election fraud brought against the PRI by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Immediately after the founding of the Commission, both the feminist movement focused on decriminalization of abortion and the pro-life movement called on the Commission to affirm their position on human rights and abortion. Feminists argued that the protection of women’s human rights required access to safe and legal abortion and pro-life movement activists claimed human rights protections began at conception. Both sides passionately asserted that their claims were morally justified. Since international human rights instruments were vague, it was not clear where the political advantage lay—for feminists or for pro-life advocates.
Recently, the decision by the Mexican National Supreme Court of Justice that it is unconstitutional to criminalize abortion in Mexico indicates acceptance of the feminist argument by that body. But in the 1990s, it was not clear that the feminist argument would prevail in the debates over abortion. In the current context, abortion law still mostly resides with the states because the Mexican Supreme Court has less authority than the US Supreme Court to invalidate state law. Some states still enshrine human rights protections from conception in their state constitutions. Perhaps rather than “politically problematic,” I should have written that human rights discourse has been politically complicated and contested.
You note in your paper that "feminists in Mexico who supported the Chiapas reform legislation contended that what was criminalized was not so much abortion as poverty since abortion was accessible and safe for those who could afford it but less accessible and decidedly unsafe for poor women." Do you think the same is true - or will prove to be - in the United States?
One of the main arguments made by Mexican feminists since the 1970s has been that abortion has always been available to women with the resources to travel (or access information about acquiring a safe illegal abortion nearby). US feminists made the same argument before Roe v. Wade. Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, women with means who live in states where abortion is illegal are the ones who can easily travel for a legal procedure. We began to see this in Texas last year as women traveled to nearby states for legal procedures if they were more than 6 weeks pregnant. Now the distance is further, and the legal landscape is more complicated. The wide availability of Misoprostol in Mexico has made illegal abortion access relatively easy and many feminists in Mexico have been involved in helping women learn about how to acquire and use the drug safely. It remains to be seen how easily medication abortion access will be for US women living in illegal abortion states.
In your blog post on the Journal of Women's History website, you quote Sophia Jordan Wallace: "rolling back abortion rights is rare in democracies and is a sign of democratic backsliding". Are there historical examples of this? Has any country successfully moved back towards reproductive health freedom after an abortion ban?
The main examples of “democratic backsliding” coupled with increased restrictions on abortion are Poland, Hungary, and Nicaragua (and perhaps the US), all of which have imposed abortion restrictions as they weaken democratic institutions. El Salvador is another example of a country with weak democratic institutions and extremely strict laws against any exceptions for legal abortion (since 1988). Argentina and Chile are two examples where democratic electorates have increased access to legal abortion after dictatorships had instituted severe restrictions.
What are you currently working on / what's next for you, research-wise?
As I wrote above, my current research focuses on the relationship between human rights and abortion legality in Mexico. This research is also connected to questions about the relationship between democratic institutions and abortion legality. As with human rights, people on both sides of the abortion debate in Mexico claim to be fighting for strong democratic institutions. Another thread of my current research focuses on transnational feminist organizing in Latin America and in the United States. My current understanding is that Mexican feminists have been successfully organizing across international borders with other Latin American feminists since the 1970s. US feminists have been more focused on organizing within US borders, although there are many exceptions where US feminists have built international linkages often associated with organizing around United Nations meetings.
Jennifer Nelson is a historian with an emphasis in United States women’s history. She is a professor in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Redlands. Her dissertation became her first book, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement (NYU Press 2003). Her second book, More Than Medicine: A History of the Women’s Health Movement (NYU Press 2016), extended her research on the feminist and women’s health movements in the United States. She also co-edited with Barbara Molony a volume on transnational feminism, Women’s Activism and “Second Wave” Feminism: Transnational Histories. Nelson has published articles in a variety of women’s history, medical history, and women’s studies journals on the subject of reproductive rights, women’s health, and social justice movements.