MEXICO CITY — Criminalizing abortion is unconstitutional, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday, setting a precedent that could lead to legalization of the procedure across this conservative Catholic country of about 130 million people.
The unanimous ruling from the nation’s top court follows years of efforts by a growing women’s movement in Mexico that has repeatedly taken to the streets of major cities to demand greater rights and protections.
The decision, which opens the door for Mexico to become the most populous Latin American country to allow abortion, was met with elation by feminist activists and dismay by conservative politicians and the powerful Catholic Church.
“Today is a historic day for the rights of all Mexican women,” Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar said after the judges’ votes were cast. “It is a watershed in the history of the rights of all women, especially the most vulnerable.”
The decision does not automatically make abortion legal across Mexico, experts said, but it does set a binding precedent for judges across the country. Abortion rights advocates said they planned to use the ruling to challenge laws in the vast majority of Mexican states that mandate jail time or other criminal penalties for women who have the procedure.
For now, analysts said, women arrested for having an abortion can sue state authorities to have the charges dropped. Activists also plan to push state authorities to free women now serving prison terms for having had abortions.
The Mexican Supreme Court’s decision is likely to reverberate across Latin America, where victories by women’s rights movements in one country often catalyze efforts in others. The legalization of abortion in Argentina last year was celebrated in other nations, and the green handkerchiefs brandished by activists there have become widespread at women’s protests across the region, including in Mexico.
Leaders of the Catholic Church, whose regional influence has been waning but still carries considerable weight, swiftly condemned the ruling.
“Those of us who are convinced of the value of life do not have a need for a homicidal law like the one they are approving,” read a tweet from the Episcopal Conference of Mexico, an organization of Catholic bishops.
Tuesday’s ruling follows efforts by women’s groups that began well over a decade ago, with the legalization of abortion in Mexico City in 2007. Groups then successfully pushed for the procedure to be decriminalized in the states of Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Veracruz.
Advocates said they hoped their victory on Tuesday would buoy American women challenging moves by Texas and other states to place ever-tighter restrictions on the procedure.
“If there is a message, it is to look at the leadership of Mexico here: This is possible, it is happening,” said Giselle Carino, the chief executive of the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Western Hemisphere region. “When you have adverse conditions, like in Texas, you need to double down on your efforts.”
There was no immediate comment from President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has faced sharp criticism in the past for his response to the women’s movement, which he has dismissed as an effort to undermine his political project.
Mr. López Obrador, a devout Christian, has remained noncommittal on abortion, careful not to inflame his base of working class, socially conservative voters. When asked at his morning news conference on Tuesday about the Supreme Court’s deliberations, Mr. López Obrador refused to offer his view on the issue, which he called “controversial” and “polemic.”
“We don’t want to encourage any confrontation,” Mr. López Obrador said. “If it’s already at the Supreme Court, then let it be resolved there.”
In its ruling, the Supreme Court had considered a challenge to the law in the northern state of Coahuila, which had set prison penalties of up to three years for having an abortion. The justices struck down the state law, finding broadly that any criminal penalization of abortion violated Mexico’s Constitution.
“It’s an enormous step toward legalization in the entire country,” said Rebeca Ramos, the executive director of GIRE, a reproductive rights group. “We are absolutely ready to present legal challenges to the denial of safe and legal abortion” across the country.
Analysts said they expected to see a wave of such efforts nationwide. The Supreme Court justices “are setting the tone for all local criminal codes to be reformed,” said Paulina Creuheras González, head of analysis and political risk at Integralia, a Mexico City consulting firm.
Women across Mexico have in recent years protested en masse across the country, demanding not only the right to have an abortion but also an end to the grave and pervasive violence they face, which has become a national crisis.
Last year, an average of 10 women were killed in Mexico every day, according to government figures. More than 2,000 have been murdered in the first seven months of 2021 alone.
In March, hundreds of women stormed the country’s National Palace in Mexico City, attacking the rampart around the president’s residence with bats, blowtorches and hammers, demanding an end to gender-based violence.
The protest followed a massive demonstration last year that brought tens of thousands of women to the streets, many of them wearing the green handkerchiefs first seen in Argentina. The following day, women in Mexico stayed home from work in a national strike to demand government action.
Religious leaders in the country, which has one of the largest Catholic populations in the world, have been steadfast in their condemnation of abortion.
“We cannot remain indifferent, silent, fearful when life is in such danger,” said Bishop Alfonso Miranda Guardiola, the secretary general of the Mexican Episcopal Conference, in a sermon on Tuesday.
The chief justice of the Supreme Court, Judge Zaldívar, made clear that he saw Tuesday’s ruling as the first step toward a more fundamental transformation in Mexican society.
“Now begins a new path of freedom, of clarity, of dignity and respect for all pregnant people, but above all, for women,” he said. “Today is one more step in the historic fight for their equality, for their dignity and for the full exercise of their rights.”