MEXICO CITY — When the chief justice of Mexico’s Supreme Court began voting in favor of abortion rights, his toughest opponents were the people closest to him.
His sister asked why he wanted to kill babies. His brother, a civil engineer, lost clients. Friends prayed for his religious conversion in group chats.
“No one could explain,” Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar Lelo de Larrea said, “when exactly I lost my way.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, it was the capstone of a remarkable trend: while the United States has increasingly restricted access to abortion, much of the world has moved in the opposite direction.
The ruling cemented the status of the United States, long a model for those seeking to broaden reproductive rights, as a global outlier — part of a small subset of nations that over the past two decades has made it harder for women to end their pregnancies.
But just as stunning as that reversal is the evolution of deeply religious and socially conservative countries in Latin America that now find themselves in the vanguard of expanding abortion rights worldwide.
There are fewer examples more telling than Mexico, the country with the second-largest Roman Catholic population in the world, after Brazil. The Supreme Court in Mexico decriminalized abortion in a unanimous ruling last year that paved the way for the procedure to become legal nationwide.
“We are all in favor of life,” Chief Justice Zaldívar told the court at the time. “The only thing is, some of us are in favor of the life of women being one in which their dignity is respected, in which they can fully exercise their rights.”
Many forces drove Mexico’s transformation. Decades of feminist activism reshaped the national conversation around the violence women regularly face and the autonomy they deserve. Rights groups helped thrust abortion cases onto the Supreme Court’s agenda. Conservative justices left the court.
Among those most responsible for the nation’s shift on abortion, the chief justice may seem like a surprising actor. But Mr. Zaldívar, raised by practicing Catholic parents in a decidedly conservative state, has become one of Mexico’s most powerful champions of abortion rights.
“He took advantage of the power he had as chief justice of the court to push many things in favor of gender equity,” said Ana Laura Magaloni, a law professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “He will be remembered by history for that.”
Mr. Zaldívar said that he now considers himself “a freethinker of Christian origin with a Buddhist orientation.” He believes that calling abortion murder “dilutes the humanity of women in virtue of a religious belief.”
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His personal evolution reflects the sweeping change in a nation forced to reconcile faith and conservative values with unyielding demands by generations of women for control over their bodies. It’s also the story of how Mr. Zaldívar was, he said, “re-educated” by the small circle of women who are his closest aides and confidantes.
Mr. Zaldívar has been criticized by some as too close to the country’s president, too political and too eager to occupy the public spotlight. Some worry that in broadcasting his personal convictions, Mr. Zaldívar risks disqualifying himself from future decisions on key issues.
The chief justice at times seems more focused on “having a role as a protagonist than in the actual construction of precedent,” said José Antonio Caballero, a lawyer and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “At the end of the day, these decisions are being made by a court, and by the group of justices that comprise the court.”
The Mexican Supreme Court, with 11 justices, four of whom are women, also has less influence over the country than its counterpart in the United States, experts said.
The ruling on abortion in Mexico doesn’t mandate that states change their laws, and today, abortion is legal in only eight of 31 states, as well as in Mexico City, though that number is expected to grow.
Mr. Zaldívar, 62 and married, grew up in Querétaro, one of just two states in Mexico that allowed women to obtain abortions only in cases of rape, not to save a mother’s life, according to the reproductive rights group GIRE. His parents, regular churchgoers, sent him to a Catholic school.
If his mother had still been alive when he began ruling on abortion cases, Mr. Zaldívar said, “It would have been a tremendous blow.”
He moved to Mexico City to study law, eventually started his own law firm, and was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2009 by the former president Felipe Calderón, a conservative. At first, he saw abortion as a class issue, not a feminist one.
“In this country, rich girls have always gotten abortions, and will continue to get abortions — it’s poor women who get punished,” Mr. Zaldívar said. “You are criminalizing poverty.”
In recent years, Latin America has seen waves of demonstrations by feminist activists who, using a green handkerchief as a symbol and calling themselves the “green tide,” have revolutionized reproductive rights in the region.
They helped push Argentina to legalize abortion in 2020, Colombia to decriminalize the procedure this year and Ecuador to allow it in cases of rape. In Mexico, demonstrations led by protesters demanding legal abortions and an end to violence against women “changed the paradigm,” Mr. Zaldívar said.
The activists have been criticized by the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who ran as a leftist but who has said that the protests are being driven by his political opponents.
Mr. Zaldívar, however, credits the demonstrators with moving the consciousness of the country — and its top justices.
“It kept getting harder and harder to go against their legitimate demands,” he said, adding: “They’re getting killed, they’re getting raped, no one listens to them.”
But Mr. Zaldívar, chief justice since 2019, was also being influenced much closer to his chambers by his top aides, almost all of whom are women.
One of them, Alejandra Spitalier, said that after she started working for Mr. Zaldívar at his law firm in 2002, she confided in him about her abusive father. He approved an advance on her salary so that she could move out of her house.
In a 2016 decision written by Mr. Zaldívar, the Supreme Court ruled that a Mexico City law requiring parents to give their children their father’s last name as their primary surname, a custom that long signaled a man’s role as the head of the family, was unconstitutional.
Ms. Spitalier’s daughter was the one of the first children in the capital to benefit from the new rule.
After Fabiana Estrada, his top adviser, became pregnant and requested a place to pump breast milk, Mr. Zaldívar pushed for the installation of a lactation room in the court.
When Mr. Zaldívar got to the court, he began looking at how to increase the number of women judges. He was initially wary of limiting candidate pools to just women, believing there should open competition for the judiciary slots.
But he was ultimately persuaded by Ms. Estrada’s argument that many women were not even applying because of the barriers they faced. In 2019, he helped create specific pathways for women to become federal judges, lifting gender parity in the justice system.
Before Mr. Zaldívar voted on two cases involving state laws defining life as beginning at conception, in 2011, an aide told him how religious groups had harassed her after she terminated her pregnancy. He voted in favor of invalidating the laws.
“Having women in his tight circle obviously gives him a better understanding,” Ms. Spitalier said. “It gives him a bit of the vision, the feeling, the taste of what it is to be a woman.”