The hard reality behind Mexico's bitter abortion debate
Gabriela was 14 and dreaming of becoming a schoolteacher when her life took a different turn upon learning she was expecting a baby.
Currently living in a women's shelter in Aguascalientes, a central Mexican city of about a million people, Gabriela is one of a growing number of young teenage mothers whose plight is forcing this very Catholic country to take stock of some of its most cherished values.
"We receive girls we refer to as adult teenagers," says Roxana D'Escobar López-Arellano who runs the shelter in Aguascalientes. "They are girls who become mothers at 13, 14 and 15 years of age, something we did not see five or 10 years ago."
According to D'Escobar, her shelter helps about two child mothers each month.
"They are completely defenceless. They haven't finished school, they are not qualified to work or prepared to raise children. They are girls playing with their own children."
So far this year, the state-run health institute in Aguascalientes has registered 213 births to young women under 15, including 21 to girls under 13.
It is an increase from previous years and part of a nationwide trend that has seen the number rise steadily to 11,530 cases in 2008, a 35 per cent increase from the mid-1980s when statistics were first kept.
It is also part of the fuel that is re-igniting Mexico's divisive debate over abortion, a polarizing issue that took centre stage two years ago when Mexico City's leftist lawmakers legalized it — but only in the capital.
In the capital of the world's second-largest Roman Catholic country, abortions are now legal up to 12 weeks' gestation. However, they remain a crime in the rest of the country where a woman risks jail time if caught interrupting her pregnancy.
The liberalizing move in Mexico City sparked wide condemnation from the Catholic Church and sent both pro-life and pro-choice supporters into the streets.
Upheld by the Supreme Court in August 2008, it also touched off a political firestorm, with conservative state legislatures passing a spate of anti-abortion laws.
In recent months, 16 of Mexico's 32 states have amended their state constitutions to define a fertilized human egg as a person with a right to legal protection "from conception until natural death."
Not surprisingly, the debate has energized both liberals and conservatives and raised concerns about the estimated 200,000 illegal abortions that are performed here each year, which result in nearly 1,500 women dying during botched operations in unhygienic backstreet clinics.
Meanwhile, Emilio González-Márquez, the pro-life governor of the western state of Jalisco, has taken the debate a step further by refusing to allow public and private hospitals to perform abortions on women who are victims of rape.
He is asking the highest court to outlaw abortions for rape victims, which would close one of the very few exceptions available to women under federal law.
An eight-year-old mom
At the Aguascalientes women's shelter, D'Escobar says it is not uncommon that rape victims are denied their right to abortion in any event, yet no one is prosecuted.
"Not only the state but also doctors deny [this right] for personal and ethical reasons," she says. "We are very traditional here.
"In the U.S., parents talk openly about the possibility of having abortion. Here they don't. Religion still carries weight here and, for the majority of women, this is a capital sin."
The most extreme case in this city involved an eight-year-old rape victim who allegedly gave birth last spring at Hospital de la Mujer, Aguascalientes' largest public hospital for women.
Local papers reported the victim was the youngest girl to give birth in 2009, based on comments by hospital director Dr. Arturo Guerra Lugo. But when directly asked about the case, Guerra backtracked.
"It happened but not this year," he told me. "I seem to recall there was a case. We looked through our archives but could not trace the girl's file, which means it must have happened a while ago."
Most young mothers in Mexico are from impoverished or broken families.
"Everything goes against them — no money, no family and no support network," says D'Escobar. "They feel a loss of childhood. Psychologically, they jump from childhood to adulthood, skipping adolescence, a burden they will always carry.
"They view their babies as toys. It is a very serious generational clash."
Marcela Martínez Roaro, a lawyer who is also a sex educator, attributes premature motherhood to a lack of adequate sex education both in schools and at home.
"Eroticism is a taboo subject," she adds, pointing to a tradition of conservatism in central Mexico where certain drugstores don't sell condoms, birth-control pills or other contraceptive methods.
As for Gabriela, the young woman dropped out of school and was soon left on her own to provide for herself and her baby girl.
Now 15, she speaks candidly of her ongoing struggles as a young mother, challenges that were heightened by physical and emotional abuse that she suffered before turning up on the shelter's doorsteps.
"I moved in with the father of my daughter when she was three-months-old but he started beating me. And the baby too," she said during our interview at Mujer Contemporánea.
Tears filled her deep dark eyes as she recounted her ordeal. "He left me all swollen and bruised and broke the baby's hand," she adds. "I am still afraid to leave here."
Gabriela has been at the shelter for two months trying to piece her life back together. A good start, she says, is the prospect of being reunited with her own mother once she leaves the shelter, something that gives her a new sense of optimism.
"My mom visited me here and I want to go stay with her," she says. "And I want to go back to school."