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Right Now, It's Latin America Who Can Help America Regain Its Senses On Abortion

Mexican women wearing and waving their movement's green colors demonstrate for abortion rights.

COMMENTARY This month's Texas and Mexico cases confirm the U.S. is moving backward — and Latin America forward — on how to approach abortion.

As a gringo, I admit I’ve long tended to believe it’s North America — the United States — who has something to teach Latin America when it comes to societal stuff like democratic institutions, capitalism, education.

And a woman’s right to an abortion.

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But in recent years, as an American and a Latin Americanist, I’ve done a double-take when it comes to abortion. Latin America is still home to some of the world’s most restrictive if not medieval abortion laws; but right now I think the society to the south has more to teach the U.S. about where a legally and humanely reasonable approach to abortion lies. Latin America can help America remember what it’s sadly forgotten.

For starters: the Mexican Supreme Court’s unanimous decision this week to decriminalize abortion. By striking down one Mexican state’s total ban on the procedure as unconstitutional, the justices appear to be telling the rest of Mexico it must now allow what three states and the federal district of Mexico City already provide: legal access to abortion at least during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

READ MORE: Anti-Abortion Extremists: Look First at Latin America's Dark, Dangerous Path

The Mexican ruling is an echo of something too many Americans, conservative and liberal, disregard today: the reasonableness that underpins the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion under certain parameters.

Let’s emphasize the two most important words in that last sentence: reasonableness and parameters.

Roe v. Wade acknowledged those guideposts. On the one hand, it said that because a fetus in the early stage of gestation is an unviable and non-sentient organism, there is too much doubt that aborting it can legally — not religiously but legally — be called homicide. On the other hand, when a fetus does become a viable and sentient being in the womb, there’s much less doubt that aborting it is a legal affront – unless serious health circumstances are involved in the pregnancy, such as rape or incest, severe fetal malformation or a threat to the mother’s life.

Mexico's and other Latin America abortion reforms are an echo of what too many Americans, conservative or liberal, disregard now: the reasonableness that underpins Roe v. Wade.

Too many U.S. pro-lifers — like those in Texas, where a law essentially outlawing all abortions just took effect, or Florida, where conservative legislators are considering a similar measure — refuse to recognize the humane reasonableness of those parameters. Meanwhile, too many U.S. pro-choicers — who too often give the strong impression, at least, that they endorse all abortions all the time — refuse to recognize the humane parameters of that reasonableness.

That’s why Latin America’s abortion evolution at this moment is instructive.


Granted, no region in the world has more countries (six) that criminalize abortion outright, under any circumstances, as Latin America does. Exhibit A is El Salvador — a brutal reproductive Inquisition, as women like Sara Rogel know too well.

A decade ago, a pregnant Rogel took a bad fall while washing clothes in her Salvadoran village and had a miscarriage. She was accused of inducing an abortion, convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. She served nine before being paroled this summer.

Witch-hunt stories like Rogel’s abound in El Salvador — the kind of vigilante frenzy they’re bracing for in Texas. Its new law urges citizens to be anti-abortion bounty hunters who can score cash by suing anyone they slap with a scarlet letter for getting or providing the procedure. Who needs communist Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution when you’ve got the Lone Star State’s Pre-Natal Police?

Jay Jenner
Texas anti-abortion rights protesters at the state capitol in Austin this year.

But the point here is that the historic U.S.-Latin American social dynamic is moving in reverse. In the U.S., several states like Texas are moving backward, away from reasonable abortion policy; in Latin America more countries are moving forward, away from El Salvador's abortion dystopia. Last December Argentina became the region’s fourth country to legalize abortion; Mexico is tacitly the fifth; two others, Chile and Colombia, are moving closer.

In each instance, reasonableness and parameters that move in Roe v. Wade's direction are playing out. That’s especially symbolic in this week’s Mexico ruling, which targeted abortion criminalization in Coahuila state — just across the U.S.-Mexico border from Texas, whose old abortion ban was the one shot down by the 1973 Supreme Court decision.

Texas' new law will likely be ruled unconstitutional, too, even by the current conservative court. If so, gringos like me can at least say the U.S. is keeping up with Latin America.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.