In 2006, the New York-based global advocacy group Human Rights Watch honored Verónica Cruz Sánchez, founder of Las Libres, with its prestigious annual Defender of Human Rights award for her work expanding women’s rights. Cruz has helped free countless women imprisoned for abortion and miscarriage, and, in 2021, México finally decriminalized abortion, after a long campaign that Cruz and other activist women waged.

You founded Las Libres in 2000 in Guanajuato, one of the most conservative states in México. What was the problem you saw?

Men throughout México have not supported social, economic or political gender equality. Domestically, men don’t share responsibility for housework or childcare. Nor do they pay child support. And the epidemic of femicides shows that our society does not value women’s lives. No wonder — in this environment — that women haven’t had the right to make autonomous reproductive decisions.

When I found out years ago that over 2,000 women nationwide were serving prison sentences for deciding to end an unwanted pregnancy, I felt enraged. Women were even getting imprisoned for miscarriages! Those women, the suspicion went, must have somehow caused the loss of the baby. I joined with other activists in a fight to free all these imprisoned women and change the penal code to decriminalize a woman’s choice.

A big part of our work has been getting women to realize that they don’t have to accept violence or infringement of their bodily autonomy, that to get justice they must be bold and have the courage to make complaints.

Who is responsible for charging women with these “crimes?”

This largely Catholic society deems women’s sexuality to be criminal. In one case in Guerrero, an indigenous woman had an extramarital affair, became pregnant, and had an abortion. Her father and uncle filed charges against her. No investigation took place. Local prejudices passed judgment upon her. She was sentenced to 22 years!

Society, on the other hand, celebrates men’s sexuality. If a married man sees other women, he’s considered cool. In fact, if a married man doesn’t have affairs, he’s branded either a fool or gay.

But your movement succeeded in decriminalizing abortion — in a deeply Catholic nation!

Yes, last September, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled penalizing abortion unconstitutional. In our campaign, we separated “beliefs” from “rights,” religious from social. Now today more and more women are speaking out publicly about their own choice to abort. This encourages other women to seek the reproductive services they need without shame.

Under some of the new laws we’ve been able to pass, only girls younger than 12 need parental consent for an abortion. Child and teenage mothers are giving birth to 1,000 babies every day in México, often from rape or arranged marriages.

Do women have enough access to reproductive health services? Do non-medical people play a role in guaranteeing a good experience?

We favor medically induced, non-invasive abortions that can be done in the safety and privacy of home, with either in-person or virtual support from a woman in our network. But some women prefer to abort in a medical setting, and only hospitals have enough providers. That means limited access in rural areas. But no one at least need worry about cost. National health insurance covers these procedures. In one case, a state’s medical services sent, free of charge, a helicopter to pick up a girl who lived in the mountains.

México is far ahead of the US in terms of women’s right to choose. Due to the drastic cuts in abortion services in the US, you get calls for help from across the border. What message do you have for us?

We are happy to help all women! We can get them the medications for at-home abortions, and provide virtual accompaniment to support them through the procedure.

US women, please remember that things here in Guanajuato used to be much worse than what women are experiencing now in Texas. So don’t give up hope. Remember that we have a resource — the solidarity of women — that goes beyond money.  And we women, contrary to what some men in power believe, count as people too. Remind male policy makers, at every opportunity, that no one can claim to support human rights without supporting the rights of women.

Update:  Since January, 2022 after Roe fell, Las Libres has worked with more than 20,000 US residents. “Today, any Mexican woman can go to a drug store to buy the medication (inducing abortion) knowing it’s legal, that it’s not a crime… They have all the options,” Cruz said. That’s why today, Las Libres supports “many more women from the US than from Mexico.” 

And with abortion access shrinking in the US, Americans’ reliance on Mexico will continue to grow.

This interview first appearared in the México Solidarity Bulletin, the weekly newsletter of the Mexico Solidarity Project.

Banner image: Wikimedia Commons by Niktehabrc CC BY-SA 4.0