Let’s start 50 years ago when the United Nations declared family planning as a human right. Here’s what Mexico’s UN Representative, Antonio Martínez Báez, said back then: “México emitió su voto favorable, con profunda convicción, reiterando así su actititud de lograr una completa igualdad para la mujer en todos los campos jurídicos, económicos y sociales.”
He said that his country voted in favor of the resolution, and not only in favor, but with deep conviction, in the hopes that women could achieve full equality under the law and in every facet of life.
Mexico took that UN resolution to heart.
Gabriela Rivera is an OB-GYN in Mexico City. She is also with the United Nation’s Population Office in Mexico. The story of the women in her family is like a mirror image of the country, where the birth rate has dropped dramatically.
“My grandmother had 13 children and my mother had four and I don’t have any,” Rivera says.
In the 1960s, women in developed nations like the U.S. were, on average, giving birth to four kids, while the average woman in Mexico was giving birth to seven. Today, UN data puts the average woman in the U.S. and in Mexico as virtually tied, giving birth to about two kids. In addition to that 1968 UN resolution, Mexico amended its Constitution in 1974 to give people the right to decide when and if they want children and how many they want.
“Article 4 of the Constitution, of the Mexican Constitution, has been changed,” Rivera says, reiterating what happened then.
The new law worked to counter cultural forces that had led to large families with lots of kids – one major influencer being the Catholic Church. The church’s message was basically “Get married and have as many children as the Lord gives you.” The Constitutional amendment gave Mexicans the right to decide on family size. Next, the country created an Office of Population. Its mission was to manage population growth in order to improve the country’s economic development.
The office launched a multimedia campaign. In one commercial from the 1970s, celebrities talked about how overpopulation leads to fewer resources for all. The message was clear: Birth control was key to a better quality of life. But Mexico has the highest percentage of Catholics in Latin America, so, for the pro-birth-control message to take hold, the government needed to make birth control not only legal but easy to get.
“The access to family planning is for free. Even if they don’t have health insurance and they can get it for free,” Rivera says of the policy back then.
During that time, vasectomies were free. Condoms were free. The pill was free. Intrauterine devices were free. As a result, the birth rate dropped and the economy did improve. Forty-seven percent of households in Mexico moved into the middle class. Access to free birth control also reduced maternal and infant deaths. Today, the maternal mortality rate in Mexico is on the decline.
But along the way, politics changed and so did birth control. Vicente Fox became Mexico’s 55th president in 2000. Before him, presidents in Mexico had never spoken openly about their faith. Fox, on the other hand, let everyone know he was a devout Catholic. Reproductive health researcher Samuel Santoyo from the National Autonomous University in Mexico says the Fox administration, and the one right after, adhered to the Catholic belief that most birth control methods are sinful.
“Te puedo decir que el gobierno donde estuvo Fox y donde estuvo Calderon son gobiernos extremadamente conservadores, muy derechistas donde casi no se hizo nada de diffusion de derechos sexuales y reproductivos y de prevension de embarazos no planificados,” Santoyo says.
He says, “What I can say about those administrations is that they were extremely to the right, extremely conservative.”
They also stopped educating people about their sexual and reproductive rights. They stopped educating people about ways to prevent pregnancies. Now, teen pregnancies in Mexico are on the rise. And to combat that, once again the government turned to an education campaign using the media. President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration released a new series of commercials targeted at teens. Some had euphemistic slogans such as “If you’re headed to the party, bring some balloons.” Condoms and other forms of contraceptives are now widely available not only in health clinics, but also in schools and even at food banks.
There’s a new leader in Mexico, and health-care watchers and reproductive-rights advocates are wondering what President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador will do next.