How Latin American Feminists Took on Anti-Abortion Laws and Won

Don’t despair, organise.

by Amy Booth

5 July 2022

An abortion rights activist gestures during a demonstration in support of legal and safe abortion in Mexico City
As America sees a wave of abortion criminalisation, Latin America is moving in the opposite direction. Edgard Garrido/Reuters

The US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade – the 1973 ruling that established abortion as a constitutional right – has left millions wishing they could strangle the justices with their fallopian tubes. 

As conservative states scramble to strip the rights of anyone with a uterus, many in the US are looking elsewhere for both guidance on life under abortion bans and a roadmap for how to fight back. In Latin America, a recent wave of reforms means a region in which abortion has often been the subject of nightmarish human rights reports now offers a blueprint for how to win reproductive rights.

Bans discriminate.

In Latin America, as elsewhere, abortion bans hit poor, rural and racialised women the hardest. Although by no means shielded from a ban, wealthy urban women are more likely to be able to access abortion when it’s restricted by travelling or through private healthcare. This divide has sparked the protest slogan: “Rich women abort, poor women die”.

Growing use of the abortion drug misoprostol has reduced serious complications from  desperate ways of ending pregnancies, but unsafe abortion is still a major cause of maternal death and suffering in Latin America. In 2014, the Guttmacher Institute found that unsafe abortions caused 10% of maternal deaths in the region. Some 760,000 women need medical treatment annually because of complications from unsafe abortion.

Opponents of abortion regularly distort, subvert, prevaricate and outright lie to stop the termination of pregnancies, even in the most grotesque circumstances and often when the procedure is legal. Examples of this are manifold. In Brazil, abortions are legal in cases of rape or risk to the pregnant person’s life, but in June, hospital staff in Florianópolis denied the procedure to an 11-year-old rape victim, claiming they could only perform abortions up to 20 weeks (this period is a health ministry recommendation, not a legal deadline).

Her family took legal action, but the judge blocked the abortion and placed the girl in a shelter. Leaked footage of her hearing shows her asking the girl whether she could “hold on a little longer”, and whether the father of the child – her rapist – would let her give the baby up for adoption. The child was granted the abortion after massive protest.

Many, however, aren’t so fortunate. In 2019, local authorities in Tucumán, Argentina, infamously forced an 11-year-old girl to give birth to her rapist’s baby in violation of the law and despite her pleas to “take out what the old man put inside me”. The baby died within days. These cases underscore how for those living under abortion bans, the letter of the law is secondary to the hostile interpretations of medics, police and other authorities.

A green tide.

Nonetheless, the tide in Latin America seems to be turning – and it’s green. The marea verde is an international movement of feminist activists campaigning for legal abortion under the banner of an emerald-green handkerchief – and winning victories. Their victories can offer hope to their counterparts north of the US-Mexico border. 

At the start of 2020, the only countries in Latin America in which abortion was legal were Cuba, Guyana and Uruguay. That changed in December 2020, when Argentina’s congress voted to legalise abortion for any reason up to 14 weeks. In September 2021, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that penalising abortion was unconstitutional, effectively decriminalising the procedure. Colombia decriminalised elective abortion up to 24 weeks in February of this year. For three of the region’s four most populous countries to have legalised or decriminalised abortion in recent months is significant – and Chile may soon join them.

The victory for Argentina’s abortion campaigners followed decades of feminist organising. Tens of thousands of people have attended a massive annual National Women’s Meeting since 1986, and the country erupted into protest in 2015 after pregnant 14-year-old Chiara Páez was murdered by her boyfriend in the province of Santa Fe, sparking what would quickly become the international Ni Una Menos (‘Not a single woman less’) movement fighting femicide.

An abortion bill was debated in congress for the first time in 2018. Following weeks of presentations by everyone from medics to bioethicists to priests, it was approved in the lower house but then rejected by the more conservative senate. Abortion made it onto the congressional agenda again in 2020, when feminists marched through the streets to demand politicians not use Covid-19 as an excuse to stall debate. The senate had shifted to the left with the election of centre-left Alberto Fernández in 2019, and after a marathon session, lawmakers finally approved the bill on 30 December.

In Mexico, individual states have the power to determine abortion law. In 2007, Mexico City legalised abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks, as did Oaxaca state in 2019 and Hidalgo and Veracruz in mid-2021, following feminist campaigning which had kept abortion in headlines for decades. 

Despite leftist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador steadfastly avoiding the issue, in 2017 Mexico’s Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging restrictive abortion law in the state of Coahuila as unconstitutional after hearing previous cases that saw them rule in favour of women who had been imprisoned for seeking abortions. In September 2021, the court unanimously struck down Coahuila state’s abortion law. Days later, the court ruled it was unconstitutional to create laws specifying that life begins at conception, and that the rights of embryos and foetuses cannot outweigh the pregnant person’s right to health.

The strategy in Mexico was one of legal incrementalism – chipping away until the court indicated it was ready to confront the bigger question of whether abortion was constitutonal or not. Not coincidentally, it mirrors the exact tactics used by anti-abortion campaigners in the US and, before them, civil rights campaigners like the NAACP

In February, Colombia’s constitutional court decriminalised elective abortion up to 24 weeks. Women’s organisations and lawyers from Women’s Link Worldwide had successfully tackled an absolute ban in 2006, securing exceptions for rape, risk to the pregnant person’s life, and foetal malformation. 

Building on the momentum from Argentina and Mexico and the network that pushed for the 2006 ruling, the coalition Causa Justa (Just Cause) worked with a broad spectrum of actors, including feminist lawyers, medics and activists. Using a rights-based evidence analysis, they filed a court case alleging that the prohibition of abortion was unconstitutional as it violated rights to health, freedom of conscience and freedom of the medical profession, the principle of a lay state, and posed particular risks for vulnerable groups. Colombian feminists are still pushing for the crime of abortion to be removed from the penal code entirely. It remains to be seen how the ruling will be interpreted and enacted in the healthcare system, and medics expect it will be necessary to pressure health insurance companies to cover the procedure. 

In Chile, abortion was banned completely until 2017. But following the election of leftist former student leader Gabriel Boric in March, the country has drafted a new constitution to replace its current, Pinochet dictatorship-era charter. This overhaul follows a massive social uprising in 2019 protesting acute inequality and demanding social justice. As demonstrators choked under clouds of tear gas, women reported they’d been sexually abused by the security forces, and the nexus of patriarchy, sexual violence and injustice crystallised into the viral protest anthem. If the draft text of the new constitution passes a popular referendum in September, Chile will become the first country in the Americas to specifically enshrine the right to abortion in its constitution.

A long slog.

Even in Latin American countries where the outlook on reproductive rights seems grim, there’s scope for hope in small victories. In late 2021, Honduras – which recently incorporated an abortion ban into its constitution – elected the leftwing Xiomara Castro, the nation’s first female president. While Castro is unlikely to secure the three-quarters supermajority required to remove her predecessor’s constitutional ban, she has promised to overturn the national ban on the emergency contraceptive pill.

These victories in Latin America have been hard won. They came off the back of sustained, disruptive and widespread feminist pressure, because in a patriarchal world, politicians won’t risk their skins by volunteering these rights willingly. They required sometimes bitterly divided feminist movements to set aside their differences and work together. They required broad alliances, from grassroots organisers in working class communities to middle class professionals. Some have spent their entire lives pushing for the right to decide. Some have been beaten for protesting, or jailed for aborting. Others didn’t live to see abortion bans overturned. Indeed, the fall of Roe v Wade is a harsh reminder that we can never take reproductive rights for granted. But Latin America’s green tide shows it’s a fight we can win.

Amy Booth is a freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires.

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