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


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.

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  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.

  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.


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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).

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Correspondence to Elyse Ona Singer.

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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.

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Singer, E.O. Lawful Sinners: Reproductive Governance and Moral Agency Around Abortion in Mexico. Cult Med Psychiatry 42, 11–31 (2018).

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