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

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Notes

  1. 1.

    A pseudonym.

  2. 2.

    I use this term to refer to anti-abortion activists who form part of Mexico’s National Prolife Committee, in Spanish Provida, formed in 1978.

  3. 3.

    All names of clinics and people are pseudonyms.

  4. 4.

    The public program consists of 4 specialized abortion clinics, and abortion services are also offered in 9 public health centers.

  5. 5.

    I refer here to a constellation of feminist NGOs in Mexico City, known as the National Alliance for the Right to Decide (in Spanish, ANDAR).

  6. 6.

    According to self-report, another 33.2% of women who have sought abortion professed no religion, 2.5% identified Christians, and a smaller number practiced another religion (GIRE 2008).

  7. 7.

    Abortion was legalized in Mexico City despite a major plummet in Mexico’s total fertility rate since the country’s population was deemed “problematically” high in 1970s’. In this sense, abortion reform reflects the success of local feminist mobilizations, which sought for years to reposition abortion as a matter of reproductive rights and health by exposing the negative public health consequences of criminalized abortion. Moreover, Mexico City is governed by a progressive left-center party (the PRD), and therefore is marked by more left-leaning governance than the rest of the country. It was the first place in Mexico to legalize gay marriage, and to decriminalize marijuana and passive euthanasia. For a more detailed discussion of the process of abortion reform in Mexico City see, Sánchez Fuentes et al. (2008).

  8. 8.

    It is important to note that private colleges in Mexico City are economically out of reach for all but the wealthiest sectors of the population. Public colleges, on the other hand, are nearly 100% subsidized. Being a college student, in short, does not typically denote the middle-class status that it does in a place like the United States.

  9. 9.

    http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm.

  10. 10.

    This is the case even though there is no explicit mention of abortion in the New Testament. Religious scholars, however, maintain that prohibitions against abortion can be inferred (Noonan 1967). Indeed, Christian teachings against abortion appeared in opposition to a cultural milieu in which infant and fetal life were scarcely valued (Noonan 1967). It was not until the nineteenth century, alongside the development of the biological sciences, that Catholic dogma began to emphasize life as beginning from conception (Roberts 2012).

  11. 11.

    Marianismo represents just one gender ideology in Mexico and does not represent the totality of local definitions of femininity either historically or today. I describe Marianismo here as the hegemonic gender framework, moored in Catholicism, which defines abortion as anti-feminine.

  12. 12.

    The painted icon of Guadalupe is enshrined in a Basilica in the north of Mexico City on the hill where she first appeared in 1531 to Juan Diego, an indigenous convert to Christianity.

  13. 13.

    It is likely that Lourdes noted Luciana’s middle class status as compared to the vast majority of Mujeres patients, who cannot afford private fertility care or flights to the US. Therefore, Lourdes’ comment may also reflect a presumption that Luciana, unlike many of her patients, could provide for all three babies.

  14. 14.

    As I mentioned, Viane traveled from her state of Guanajuato, where elective abortion is criminalized, to Mexico City to seek a legal abortion.

References

  1. Amuchástegui, Ana, and Edith Flores (2013) Women’s Interpretations of the Right to Legal Abortion in Mexico City: Citizenship, Experience and Clientelism. Citizenship Studies 17(8): 912-927.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Amuchástegui, Ana, Guadalupe Cruz, Evelyn Aldaz, María Consuelo Mejía (2010) Politics, Religion and Gender Equality in Contemporary Mexico: Women’s Sexuality Reproductive Rights in a Contested Secular State. Third World Quarterly 31(6): 989-1005.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Andaya, Elise (2014) Conceiving Cuba: Reproduction, Women, and the State in the Post-Soviet Era. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Blacksher, E. (2002) On Being Poor and Feeling Poor: Low socioeconomic status and the moral self. Theoretical Medicine 23: 455-470.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Blancarte, Roberto (2000) Popular Religion, Catholicism, and Socioreligious Dissent in Latin America: Facing the Modernity Paradigm. International Sociology 15(4): 591-603.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Fassin, Didier (2012) Économies Morales et Justices Locales. Revue Française de Sociologie 53(4): 651–655.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Gammeltoft, Tine (2014) Haunting Images: A Cultural Account of Selective Reproduction in Vietnam. Berkeley: Univ of Calif Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Garcia, Angela (2015) Serenity: Violence, Inequality and Recovery on the Edge of Mexico City. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 29(4): 455-472.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Georges, Eugenia (1996) Abortion policy and practice in Greece. Social Science & Medicine 42(2): 509-519.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Ginsburg, Faye, and Rayna Rapp (1991) The Politics of Reproduction. Annual Review of Anthropology 20: 311–343.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Ginsburg, Faye, and Rayna Rapp (1995) Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. University of California Pr.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida (GIRE) (2008) The Process of Decriminalizing Abortion in Mexico City, Ciudad de México.

  13. Hirsch, Jennifer S. (2008) Catholics Using Contraceptives: Religion, Family Planning, and Interpretive Agency in Rural Mexico. Studies in Family Planning 39(2): 93-104.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Inhorn, Marcia C. (2011) Globalization and Gametes: Reproductive “Tourism”, “Islamic Bioethics”, and Middle Eastern Modernity. Anthropology and Medicine 18(1): 87-103.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Kahn, Susan Martha (2000) Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Kleinman, Arthur (1999) Experience and Its Moral Modes: Culture, Human Conditions, and Disorder. Tanner Lectures on Human Values 20: 355–420.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Lambeck, Michael, Veena Das, Didier Fassin and Webb Keane (2015) Four Lectures on Ethics: Anthropological Perspectives. Chicago: Hau Books.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Lester, Rebecca J. (2005) Jesus in Our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Mishtal, Joanna (2015) The Politics of Morality: The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Post-Socialist Poland. Athens: Ohio University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Mishtal, Joanna and Rachel Dannefer (2010) Reconciling Religious Identity and Reproductive Practices: The Church and Contraception in Poland. The European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Health Care 15(4): 232-242.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Morgan, Lynn and Elizabeth Roberts (2012) Reproductive Governance in Latin America. Anthropology & Medicine 19(2): 241–254.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Myers, Neely (2016) Recovery Stories: An anthropological exploration of moral agency in stories of mental health recovery. Transcultural Psychiatry 53(4): 427-444

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Noonan, John T. (1967) Abortion and the Catholic Church: A Summary History. Natural Law Forum, Paper 126.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Ortiz-Ortega, Adriana (2005) The Politics of Abortion in Mexico: The Paradox of Doble Discurso. In: W. Chavkin and E. Chesler (eds.) Where Human Rights Begin: Health, Sexuality, and Women in the New Millennium. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Paxon, Heather (2002) Rationalizing Sex: Family Planning and the Making of Modern Lovers in Urban Greece. American Ethnologist 29(2): 307-334.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Peterson, Jeanette F. (1992) The Virgin of Guadalupe: Symbol of Conquest or Liberation? Art Journal 51(4): 39-47.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Pew Research Center (2013) The Global Catholic Population. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/02/13/the-global-catholic-population/2014 Religion and Morality in Latin America. http://www.pewforum.org/interactives/latin-america-morality-by-religion/

  28. Price, Kimala (2010) What is Reproductive Justice?: How Women of Color Activists are Redefining the Pro-Choice Paradigm. Meridians 10(2): 42-65.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Price, Kimala (2011) It’s Not Just About Abortion: Incorporating Intersectionality in research about Women of Color and Reproduction. Women’s Health Issues 21(3): 55-57.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Rapp, Rayna (2000) Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: The social of Amniocentesis in America. NY: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Roberts, Elizabeth FS (2006) God’s Laboratory: Religious Rationalities and Modernity in Ecuadorian in Vitro Fertilization. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 30(4): 507–536.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Roberts, Elizabeth FS (2012) God’s Laboratory: Assisted Reproduction in the Andes. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Ross, Loretta and Rickie Solinger (2017) Reproductive Justice: An Introduction. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Sánchez Fuentes, María Luisa, Jennifer Paine, and Brook Elliott-Buettner (2008) The Decriminalisation of Abortion in Mexico City: How did Abortion Rights Become a Political Priority? Gender and Development 16(2): 345-360.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (1992) Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Shepard, B. (2000) The “Double Discourse” on Sexual and Reproductive rights in Latin America: the Chasm Between Public Discourse and Private Actions. Health and Human Rights Journal 4(2): 110-143.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Elyse Ona Singer (2016) From Reproductive Rights to Responsibilization: Fashioning Liberal Subjects in Mexico City’s New Public Abortion Program. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. doi:10.1111/maq.12321.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Thompson, Charis (2006) God Is in the Details: Comparative Perspectives on the Intertwining of Religion and Assisted Reproductive Technologies. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 30(4): 557–561.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Trexler, Richard C. (2003) Reliving Golgotha: The Passion Play of Iztapalapa. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Sargent, Carolyn (2006) Reproductive Strategies and Islamic Discourse. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 20(1): 31-49.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Voekel, Pamela (2002) Alone Before God: The Religious Origins of Modernity in Mexico. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Zigon, Jarrett (2007) Moral Breakdown and the Ethical Demand A Theoretical Framework for an Anthropology of Moralities. Anthropological Theory 7(2): 131–150.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Zigon, Jarrett (2008) Morality: An Anthropological Perspective. Oxford: Berg.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Funding

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).

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Elyse Ona Singer.

Ethics declarations

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.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Singer, E.O. Lawful Sinners: Reproductive Governance and Moral Agency Around Abortion in Mexico. Cult Med Psychiatry 42, 11–31 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-017-9550-y

Download citation

Keywords

  • Reproductive governance
  • Moral agency
  • Catholicism
  • Abortion
  • Reproductive justice