The US Could Learn a Lot From Big Abortion Wins in Latin America

In the last 18 months, three countries in the region have legalized abortion thanks to a grassroots movement.

MEXICO CITY — Abortion rights activists in the U.S. are on an historic losing streak. But across Latin America, the opposite is true: A grassroots movement has helped expand reproductive rights in a wave of wins across the region.

For 49 years, the United States has been a reference point for activists in Latin America pushing for the legalization of abortion. But as the U.S. moves increasingly closer to eliminating the constitutional right to abortion, advocates in the U.S. might now be looking to their southern neighbors to replicate their improbable success. 

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Three of Latin America’s most populous countries—Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia—decriminalized or legalized abortion in the last 18 months, the result of mass protests and public relations campaigns that have ended in legal victories. 

The back-to-back wins in favor of reproductive rights are all the more remarkable considering the broadly Catholic and conservative value systems that dominate in much of Latin America, which for decades has imposed some of the most draconian abortion bans in the world. 

Now, activists who for so long looked north for lessons in advocacy are eager to share what they’ve learned at home with their colleagues in the U.S, who are facing the biggest threat to abortion rights in the last five decades.

“The fight for abortion in the past year has become very transnational. Everything that happens in the region is influencing other countries,” said Catalina Martínez Coral, senior director of the Center for Reproductive Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. “Activists in the U.S. still have an opportunity, and now what is needed is a social mobilization not only in the U.S. but in the region, saying we are here to protect our rights.”

In Latin America, abortion-rights activists focused not just on changing laws but also on changing the conversation around the procedure. Repeatedly, they hammered home one message: Criminalizing abortion doesn’t stop women from getting them; it just makes it harder and less safe to do so. And they also took to the streets: Tens of thousands of women waving green handkerchiefs became the symbol of the influential grassroots movement known as the Marea Verde, or the Green Wave.

“In Latin America, we have seen the devastating consequences for so long and we know what it looks like to restrict abortion and that’s why we are going the other way,” said Paula Ávila-Guillén, executive director of Women’s Equality Center in New York and a Colombian lawyer. “In the U.S. you have an entire generation who has not seen what it looks like to live in a country without abortion access.” 

But that time in the U.S. might have come. Sen. Chuck Schumer said on Tuesday he planned to bring legislation that would codify the Roe v. Wade decision that guarantees a right to abortion, although it has no chance of passing. Thousands of abortion-rights supporters demonstrated in cities around the U.S. on Tuesday in the wake of a leaked draft opinion, published by Politico, showing the majority-conservative U.S. Supreme Court is prepared to overrule Roe v. Wade.

In Latin America, the Green Wave movement has managed to make astonishing inroads for abortion rights in just a few years. Its origins stem from the #NiUnaMenos (Not One Woman Less) movement, which started in Argentina in 2015 to protest an escalating number of murders and attacks on women and girls. Thousands of women participated in protests, mostly dressed in black, chanting “not one less” and “we want to live.”

Then, in 2018, hundreds of thousands of women in Argentina swept onto the streets demanding the legalization of abortion. Many wore green handkerchiefs, inspired by the white kerchiefs worn by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo decades earlier to raise awareness about the abduction and murder of their children during Argentina’s dictatorship. The green scarves rapidly spread across Latin America—at women's rights protests, on bookbags and bicycles—a symbol of support for legal abortion. 

The campaign for abortion rights became all encompassing: Activists pursued legal challenges in conjunction with public protests and drives to change public opinion.

“We changed the laws because we went on the streets,” Ávila-Guillén said. Even court decisions, she said, “happened after having a lot of public mobilization about the issue.” 

Laws expanding the right to abortion in Latin America have come in quick succession, and advocates have built momentum with each success.

In Argentina, lawmakers passed a law in December 2020 permitting an abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. In September 2021, Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalized abortion. And in February, Colombia’s Constitutional Court legalized abortion during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. In Septemer, Chileans will vote on whether to ratify a new constitution that enshrines the right to abortion—an enormous sea change in a country which, until 2017, had a total ban on the procedure.

The Green Wave movement owes much of its success to having a broad-tent mentality that has been “owned by the younger generations,” said María Antonieta Alcalde, director of Ipas Central America and Mexico, which advocates for reproductive rights.

“In the U.S. for a long time the issue of abortion was seen as an issue led more by white women. I think now more than ever it’s important to create this broader movement,” she said, “to be able to bring the entire sexual and reproductive rights movement, feminist movement and human rights movement together around this issue.” 

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