MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's supreme court voted unanimously Tuesday to decriminalize abortion, a striking step in a country with one of the world's largest Catholic populations and a move that contrasts sharply with tighter restrictions introduced across the border in Texas.
Eight of the 11 supreme court judges had expressed support for decriminalization in arguments that began Monday, making the decision virtually inevitable.
The vote comes as a powerful women's movement is transforming Mexico, where female politicians now make up half of Congress. While abortion remains illegal in most of Latin America, there has been a surge in demonstrations demanding more rights for women, particularly focused on rising violence.
"This will not only have an impact in Mexico; it will set the agenda for the entire Latin American region," said Melissa Ayala, coordinator of litigation for the Mexican feminist organization GIRE. She called the ruling "a historic moment for feminists and activists" who have pressed for women's rights for years in Mexico's state legislatures, health ministries and law schools.
Four countries in Latin America allow abortion under virtually all circumstances early in pregnancy: Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay and Guyana. Some nations forbid abortion for any reason. In El Salvador, women accused of aborting a fetus can be prosecuted on assault or homicide charges, and face decades in prison.
Four of Mexico's 32 federal entities have broadly legalized the procedure -- Oaxaca, Veracruz, Hidalgo and Mexico City.
One of Mexico's biggest opposition parties, the conservative National Action Party, declared its opposition to the arguments advanced in the supreme court. "We are in favor of defending life from the moment of conception until natural death," it said in a statement. It called for more measures to avert abortion, such as improving adoption services and providing more assistance to pregnant women.
Yet the decision was out of the hands of politicians.
The court was asked to rule on a law in the northern state of Coahuila that establishes jail terms of up to three years for women who procure illegal abortions.
Abortion wouldn't instantly become widely available, but the ruling will "outline a route, a criteria" that states will use to change their laws, said Diego Valades, a former supreme court judge. The decision will automatically free women who have been jailed for getting abortions, he said.
"It will have very broad effects," he said.
Mexico has the world's second-largest population of Catholics, after Brazil. Around three-quarters of Mexicans identify themselves as members of the faith, according to census data. But the government is officially secular, and the church has been losing influence, due in part to clerical sex-abuse scandals.
In addition, women's groups and social media have driven home the severity of the problem of unwanted pregnancies, especially among teenagers. More than 1 million abortions are performed each year in Mexico, most clandestinely and in unsafe conditions, according to estimates by the U.S.-based Guttmacher Institute.
"The effects on women's health, including the number of deaths registered due to clandestine abortions, and the number of child pregnancies, represent a profound social problem," said Valades. "So the attitude of most of society toward abortion has changed, despite the resistance of ecclesiastical authorities."