Democracy and Abortion: Mexico and the United States

Jennifer Nelson, University of Redlands

With the leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which seems poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, coupled with the Supreme Court of Mexico’s ruling last September 2021 explaining that Mexican states’ criminalization of abortion is unconstitutional, feminists on either side of the US/Mexico border have noted that abortion legality may soon transform in both countries in opposing directions.[1] Will women in the US travel to Mexico for abortion? Will Mexican activists mail abortion pills to women in US states with stringent anti-abortion laws? (Misoprostol, one of two drugs used for medication abortion, is available without a prescription in Mexico. Used by itself, it can safely cause the termination of a pregnancy up to about 12 weeks.)[2]

The question of whether full citizenship is possible in a country where a person can be forced to carry a pregnancy against their will weighs heavily on my mind as a scholar of reproductive politics in both the United States and Mexico[3] [see my recent JWH article, “Feminism, Human Rights, and Abortion Debates in Mexico” here]. The question is even more concerning, given that the US states likely to criminalize abortion in a post-Roe America will be the states with the highest maternal mortality rates. These rates are worse among women of color, especially among Black women.[4]

In Mexico and in the United States, feminists have agreed that legal abortion is fundamental to women’s bodily autonomy. Calls for legal abortion have been tethered to demands for women’s control over their reproductive and sexual bodies. Feminists have also recognized the pronounced economic inequality among women that can be exacerbated by unwanted pregnancy. Mexican and US feminists have also fought for legal abortion to diminish high rates of maternal mortality, primarily among low-income women in both countries: in Mexico, especially among Indigenous women, and in the US, especially among Black women. Mexican and US feminists have opposed what they have seen as the Catholic and Evangelical churches’ undue influence of the pro-life position on what they argue should be secular states in which the law respects the plurality of religious beliefs.

Mexican feminists, who have been fighting for legal abortion at least since the early 1970s, have long linked legal abortion to demands for democracy. Marta Lamas, a leader of the movement from the 1970s to the present and one of the founders of the organization Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida (GIRE) in 1992, an organization that worked to connect the pro-democracy movement in Mexico with the movement for reproductive rights, writes: “The central issue became: who decides [about abortion] and according to what precepts are decisions made in a diverse society with democratic aspirations?”[5]  

US feminists before Roe v. Wade did not make the link between legal abortion and democracy explicit since they lived in a nominally democratic country. From an historical perspective, however, feminism, like the Civil Rights movement, expanded US democracy. Most obviously, nineteenth-century feminists won women’s right to inherit property and keep their earnings, as well as the right to vote and run for office; Black women demanded not only the vote for themselves but also an end to the deadly violence that enforced the white supremacist Jim Crow system. US feminists of the late 1960s and 1970s fought for expansion of women’s public roles, in politics and in the workplace, as well as an end to state-sanctioned violence against women in their homes, and the ability to make “private” reproductive decisions, understanding that all were essential to women’s complete citizenship in a democratic system.

Since the Alito draft was leaked, there has been increasing discussion of the idea that overturning Roe v. Wade is a sign of a weakening democracy in the US context. Sophia Jordan Wallace, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington, argues that “rolling back abortion rights is rare in democracies and is a sign of democratic backsliding.” She points to Nicaragua and Poland as examples of countries who have severely restricted access to abortion while also weakening democratic institutions.[6]

The question remains, then: can a democratic system continue to be democratic if elected representatives codify their religious beliefs into state law to force pregnant people to carry pregnancies to term (and prosecute doctors and others who assist in the termination of a pregnancy)? Kelly Percival for the Brennan Center writes that a “Mississippi state representative who co-authored the 15-week abortion ban being challenged in the Supreme Court this term in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization asserted … that she ‘believes that children are a gift from God.’”[7] Mary Ann Case explains that by the 1980s, with Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” and the “Ratzinger Report” (1985)—named after Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI—“sexual complementarity,” based on the idea of “natural” differences between men and women, along with opposition to contraception and abortion and opposition to same sex marriage, became the backbone of conservative religious opposition to feminism and gay rights.[8] Is it possible to maintain a democracy if the religious belief that all pregnancies are a gift from God and must be protected from fertilization shapes law (and shapes sexual and reproductive lives), regardless of citizens’ pluralistic religious views?

Reproductive rights are now on the chopping bloc; trans rights are being threatened in many of the same states that will make abortion illegal. Many of us are concerned that overturning Roe signals the Court’s possible willingness to reverse constitutional protections for legal same-sex marriage. In many states, legislators passing laws based on religious belief hold power in heavily gerrymandered districts to bolster their minority rule, compounding the anti-democratic impact of minority religious views on people’s reproductive and sexual lives. I believe we must think about what the erosion of reproductive and sexual rights—linked to religious belief—means for our democratic system in a period when our democratic system seems more imperiled than ever.

[1] Kelly Percival, “Religion Must Not Substitute Science in the Abortion Debate,” Brennan Center for Justice, November 5, 2021,

[2] Mary Anne Case, “Trans Formation in the Vatican’s War on ‘Gender Ideology,’” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 44, no. 31 (2019): 639-664.


[4] Marta Lamas, “The Feminist Movement and the Development of Political Discourse on Voluntary Motherhood in Mexico,” Reproductive Health Matters vol. 5, no. 10 (1997): 58-67.


[6] Crystal, a member of Las Bloodys, a feminist organization that has helped Mexican women access illegal abortions, reported to me that she has already been contacted by women in the US for misoprostol. Interview with author, January 15, 2022.

[7] Latin America, particularly El Salvador, is often looked to as an example of the worst-case scenario for abortion rights. El Salvador has had a total ban on abortion since 1998. In El Salvador, and in most of Latin America, including Mexico, where until 2021, abortion was only legal on demand in Mexico City, women have been charged and incarcerated for terminating pregnancies.

[8] “Study finds higher maternal mortality rates in states with more abortion restrictions,” Aug. 23, 2021.; Robin Fields and Adriana Gallardo, “In a Post-Roe America, Expect More Births in a Country Where Maternal Mortality Continues to Rise,” May 4, 2022,