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Latin America Report

The U.S. abortion rights movement is battered. What can it learn from Latin America's?

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Natacha Pisarenko
/
AP
SEA OF GREEN Argentine abortion rights activists march in Buenos Aires in 2020.

While the U.S. looks set to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Latin American abortion rights movement is suddenly scoring victory after victory. Are there lessons to take?

With the U.S. Supreme Court apparently poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, it’s obvious abortion rights are under siege in America. In Latin America, however, abortion rights movements are scoring one victory after another.

In fact, the next one may well be in a country where it was once least expected.

This year, abortion rights advocates marching in Chile succeeded in getting generally legalized abortion written into the draft of the country's new constitution. Chileans will vote to ratify or reject the new charter in the fall.

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Chile’s long been considered one of the most socially conservative countries in the hemisphere. A few years ago, legalizing abortion on demand there seemed far-fetched. Now, the nation could become the latest in a sudden wave of countries in Latin America to do so — including Argentina, Mexico and Colombia.

“We have seized the moment so that it gets to make no sense to be against this," said Iona Rothfeld, an abortion rights activist in Santiago, Chile.

Rothfield recently attended St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, where she was a political science major and a soccer standout. She's also a star for the Chilean women’s team, and today she leads the effort for higher pay for women players there. Rothfeld said she wanted to study in the U.S. partly because she so much admires the feminist movement here.

“I remember when I was little in Chile, no one talked about reproductive rights, sexual health," Rothfeld said. "No one taught us anything.

"The United States, it’s been an inspiration.”

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Courtesy Iona Rothfeld
Iona Rothfeld painting lines for an abortion rights march in Santiago, Chile, last year.

Since her childhood, Chile’s reproductive rights movement has erupted. Rothfeld thought she’d see that same energy while she was in the U.S. But she didn’t.

“Here in Chile there will always be, like, a demonstration to talk about abortion rights — anything to get us organized," she said.

"So it was weird for me because in Miami I expected to see more activism.”

Rothfeld said that haunted her last week when word leaked that the U.S. Supreme Court is apparently planning to nullify Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion in this country. For her and other Latin American activists, it raised a key lesson for U.S. abortion-rights supporters:

“Maybe they took the right for granted?”

And that, says Isabel Fulda, is something no abortion rights movement can ever afford to do.

READ MORE: Abortion rights advocates hope a video campaign can help tip Colombia's court

“I worry that in the [U.S. abortion rights movement], Roe v. Wade is too important," said Fulda, deputy director of the Information Group on Reproductive Choice, or GIRES, an NGO in Mexico City.

Fulda said many Latin American activists feel the U.S. movement relied too much on the federal Roe v. Wade protection — and that over the years it took its eye off the state and local ball. She adds that will matter now if Roe is overturned and U.S. states are again the ones to decide whether to legalize or ban abortion.

“In Mexico," she said, "we have advanced through many, many fronts, and local activism is very, very important.”

Fifteen years ago, that local activism got abortion legalized in Mexico City. Then afterward in three Mexican states. That led to the Mexican Supreme Court’s ruling, just this past September, that all states must make abortion legal.

Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar’s declaration that criminalizing abortion is unconstitutional stunned the country.

I worry that in the U.S., Roe v. Wade was too important. That strategy alone is not enough: local activism — socially as well as legally decriminalizing abortion — is very important.
Isabel Fulda

Now, all Mexican states have to make their own legalization rules. Fulda said activists in Mexico are all too aware that in the U.S., state legislatures have done the most to chip away at Roe v. Wade. So they're aggressively engaging provincial lawmakers and judges — and Fulda said a major point they're making is that abortion rights "is not so exclusively based on the right to privacy, of the state not interfering with my body, which is the case in Roe v. Wade.”

It’s as much, she said, about social justice. That, in fact, is what drove the Mexican court ruling. The justices emphasized that criminalizing abortion “punishes poverty” — that people with means regularly find access to abortions in Mexico while poorer people cannot.

Fulda calls that an example of the Latin American movement "socially decriminalizing" abortion to help ensure it's decriminalized legally "in a stronger way."

Still, abortion rights opponents in Latin America feel the U.S. Supreme Court has given them a new weapon. They hope that because the U.S. now looks poised to roll back the constitutional right to abortion, it could help them regain some of the leverage they’ve lost in their countries.

"If the U.S. overturns Roe, we expect it to have the effect of making society here reconsider the issue," said Rosario Vidal, director of Mujeres Reivindica, or Women Reclaimed, an anti-abortion rights nonprofit in Chile. Many of its members are women who’ve had abortions but now regret it.

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Courtesy Mujeres Reivindica
Members of Mujeres Reivindica demonstrating against abortion rights in Santiago, Chile

"The U.S. trend could help us regain the communications agenda here," Vidal said, "and get people to consider again that there are more dignified options for women than abortion."

Much of Latin America does still has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws. In fact, the region has more countries that ban abortion outright, even in cases of rape or threats to a pregnant person's life, than any other.

RAPE VICTIMS

But another successful argument the abortion rights movement there has made is public health, When Argentina’s Congress legalized abortion in 2020, for example, scores of Argentine women had been dying each year from unsafe illegal abortions.

“Medical professionals went in front of the Senate and said, 'the Argentine medical system is receiving women in ERs bleeding to death in front of us,'” said Daniela Martins, who heads strategy for the nonprofit Women’s Equality Center in Miami.

Martins often works with Latin American abortion rights groups, and last year she helped create a campaign of videos in Colombia that featured celebrities narrating stories of women whose only options were illegal abortions. Many of them, such as rape victims, should have been eligible for legal abortions under Colombian statute, but were often turned way by the country's health system.

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Hijas de la Frontera
Colombian actor Katherine Porto narrating the story of "Eva."

In one video, for example, telenovela star Katherine Porto tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who became pregnant after being raped but was denied an abortion.

Then, in February, Colombia’s Constitutional Court legalized abortion — and Martins believes that advocate emphasis on public health was key.

“That kind of centrist, health-focused argument works with more conservative audiences that might not [be moved by] the more traditional feminist message of ‘my body, my choice,’ ” she said.

But Martins said perhaps the most important thing driving Latin America’s recent abortion rights successes is sheer visibility.

“None of this would have happened if it weren’t for the people on the streets," she said. "The green wave, the marea verde, over and over and over again.”

That passionate green wave that started in Argentina — activists marching in green and waving green handkerchiefs — became a shrewd abortion rights marketing tool across Latin America. It made the movement and its arguments more familiar to more Latin Americans.

And that may be a big reason Latin America and the U.S. are going in different directions on abortion. Most Latin American countries that have legalized abortion allow it only in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy; but in February, Colombia’s Constitutional Court made that limit twice as long — the same timeline Roe v. Wade permits. Meanwhile, Florida just reduced its limit from 24 weeks to 15.

"I think more and more the Supreme Courts in countries in Latin America have become more influential in Latin America itself," said Regina Tamés, who in Mexico City the directs women’s rights division for the international NGO Human Rights Watch.

"So regardless of what happens in the U.S., it won't have an effect on the legal rulings in Latin American countries like Mexico."

Even if Roe is overturned, abortion will likely remain legal in several U.S. states. But Tamés points out many Americans seeking abortions may start turning south to countries where it's now legal on demand — Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana and Mexico — and other places in Latin American, like Chile, that may soon themselves become reproductive rights refuges.

Tracy Egbas was a contributing editor on this story.

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