A woman holds a banner reading in Spanish, "Legal, safe,...

A woman holds a banner reading in Spanish, "Legal, safe, and free abortion" as abortion rights protesters demonstrate in front of the National Congress on the "Day for Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean," in Mexico City, Sept. 28, 2020. Mexico’s Supreme Court on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023, has decriminalized abortion nationwide. Credit: AP/Rebecca Blackwell

MEXICO CITY — The decision by Mexico's Supreme Court to invalidate all federal criminal penalties for abortion opened access for millions of people in the sprawling public health system a year after the court's U.S. counterpart went in the opposite direction.

Wednesday’s ruling did not have the same immediate impact as Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing women’s access to abortion. But it was a dramatic change in this predominantly Catholic nation that could lend momentum to efforts to legalize abortion across the country.

Under Mexico 's legal system, the ruling did not invalidate all criminal penalties for abortion, which remained on the books Thursday in 20 of Mexico’s 32 states.

But the ruling does mean that government health providers now need not worry about federal penalties for abortion, because the court ruled that they were an unconstitutional violation of women's human rights.

Millions of Mexican women receive health-care services from the national government, granting the ruling immediate impact. The ruling also gave abortion rights advocates a powerful tool that they can use to continue their state-by-state work of challenging abortion restrictions.

However, along with those restrictions still on the books in many states, many millions of Mexican women work outside the formal economy, placing them outside those quickly affected by Wednesday's ruling.

Abortions are not widely prosecuted as a crime in Mexico, but many doctors refuse to provide them, citing the law.

A woman holds up a sign with a message that...

A woman holds up a sign with a message that reads in Spanish; "I will decide" as she joins a march demanding legal, free and safe abortions for all women, marking International Safe Abortion Day, in Mexico City, Sept. 28, 2022. Mexico’s Supreme Court on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023, has decriminalized abortion nationwide. Credit: AP/Marco Ugarte

Celebration of the ruling spilled out onto social media.

“Today is a day of victory and justice for Mexican women!” Mexico’s National Institute for Women wrote in a message on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. The government organization called the decision a “big step” toward gender equality.

Sen. Olga Sánchez Cordero, a former Supreme Court justice, said on X that the ruling represented an advance toward “a more just society in which the rights of all are respected.”

But others in Mexico decried the decision. Irma Barrientos, director of the Civil Association for the Rights of the Conceived, said opponents will continue the fight against expanded abortion access.

A woman holds up a sign with a message that...

A woman holds up a sign with a message that reads in Spanish; "I will decide" as she joins a march demanding legal, free and safe abortions for all women, marking International Safe Abortion Day, in Mexico City, Sept. 28, 2022. Mexico’s Supreme Court on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023, has decriminalized abortion nationwide. Credit: AP/Marco Ugarte

“We’re not going to stop,” Barrientos said. “Let’s remember what happened in the United States. After 40 years, the Supreme Court reversed its abortion decision, and we’re not going to stop until Mexico guarantees the right to life from the moment of conception."

Across Latin America, countries have made moves to lift abortion restrictions in recent years, a trend often referred to as a “green wave,” in reference to the green bandanas carried by women protesting for abortion rights in the region.

Some American women already had been seeking help from Mexican abortion rights activists to obtain pills used to end pregnancies.

Mexico City was the first Mexican jurisdiction to decriminalize abortion 16 years ago.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion could not be treated as a crime in one northern state. That decision set off a slow state-by-state process of decriminalizing it.

Last week, the central state of Aguascalientes became the 12th to drop criminal penalties.

What Wednesday's ruling does now — in theory — is obligate federal agencies to provide abortion care to patients, said Fernanda Díaz de León, sub-director and legal expert for women’s rights group IPAS.

Díaz de León said removing the federal ban also takes away another excuse for denying abortions in states where the procedure is no longer a crime.

But she and officials at other feminist organizations said they worried that women, particularly in more conservative areas, may still be denied.

After decades of work by activists across the region, Argentina in 2020 legalized the procedure. In 2022, Colombia, a highly conservative country, did the same.

Since last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision, most states led by conservative lawmakers and governors have adopted bans or tighter restrictions. Meanwhile, states with liberal governments have taken steps to try to protect abortion access.

The fact that the U.S. government is politically divided makes a nationwide ban or legalization unlikely, at least in the short term.

In the southern state of Guerrero, Marina Reyna, director of the Guerrero Association Against Violence toward Women, cautioned that challenges would persist. Her state decriminalized abortion last year, but there are 22 open investigations against women accused of ending their pregnancies.

“There is still a lot of resistance,” she said.

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