Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 42, Issue 1, pp 11–31 | Cite as

Lawful Sinners: Reproductive Governance and Moral Agency Around Abortion in Mexico

  • Elyse Ona SingerEmail author
Original Paper


The Catholic Hierarchy unequivocally bans abortion, defining it as a mortal sin. In Mexico City, where the Catholic Church wields considerable political and popular power, abortion was recently decriminalized in a historic vote. Of the roughly 170,000 abortions that have been carried out in Mexico City's new public sector abortion program to date, more than 60% were among self-reported Catholic women. Drawing on eighteen months of fieldwork, including interviews with 34 Catholic patients, this article examines how Catholic women in Mexico City grapple with abortion decisions that contravene Church teachings in the context of recent abortion reform. Catholic women consistently leveraged the local cultural, economic, and legal context to morally justify their abortion decisions against church condemnation. I argue that Catholic women seeking abortion resist religious injunctions on their reproductive behavior by articulating and asserting their own moral agency grounded in the contextual dimensions of their lives. My analysis informs conversations in medical anthropology on moral decision-making around reproduction and on local dynamics of resistance to reproductive governance. Moreover, my findings speak to the deficiencies of a feminist vision focused narrowly on fertility limitation, versus an expanded framework of reproductive justice that considers as well the need for conditions of income equality and structural supports to facilitate reproduction and parenting among women who desire to keep their pregnancies.


Reproductive governance Moral agency Catholicism Abortion Reproductive justice 



This study was funded by The Wenner-Gren Foundation: Grant # 8973, and the National Science Foundation: Grant # DGE-1143954. I also received a dissertation fellowship from the American Association for University Women (No Grant # provided).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares that she has no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of Washington University and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Population Studies and Training CenterBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA

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