Moving in Opposite Directions: Abortion Rights in Latin America and the United States
By Beatriz García Nice
In its June 2022 decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the U.S. Supreme Court abandoned decades of precedent to strike down the constitutional right to abortion. This ruling—and a shift in regulatory power over abortion to individual states—is having a profound impact in American society. Already, a record number of abortion measures are on ballots to protect or abolish abortion rights. In many states, the fight over abortion access continues to take place in courtrooms. Far from settling the matter, the Supreme Court’s ruling showcases the deep divide over abortion in American society.
In a recent episode of Plaza Central from the Wilson Center’s Latin America Program, Macarena Sáenz, the Executive Director of the Division of Women’s Rights at Human Rights Watch, discusses feminist movements and abortion rights in Latin America—a region that is diverging from the United States and shifting towards liberalization.
U.S. jurisprudence often spills into national debates in Latin America, and the Supreme Court ruling calls the United States’ standing as a beacon of constitutional rights for citizens into question. “Even though the U.S. is seen as a champion in protecting many fundamental rights, it is also a country with deep social inequalities and racial discrimination,” says Sáenz.
Latin America’s Varied History on Abortion
Latin America has seen a rapid change in the advancement of women’s rights, notably the right to abortion. Until five years ago, more than 95 percent of Latin American women lived in countries where the right to abortion was severely restricted, if not prohibited. However, in the last three to five years, feminist movements consolidated their message and cemented broader support. “One of the main reasons where Latin America has succeeded in having a unified movement and strategy is having a unified message,” explains Sáenz. “It has not been easy to achieve, but it has been a strategic need.”
Latin America is not a monolith—and neither are its laws on abortion in the region. In Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana and French Guyana, women have the right to a legal abortion as long as they meet gestational-term limit requirements. Cuba was the first country in the Americas to legalize abortion; it institutionalized legal abortion up to 12 weeks since 1965, and made it free of charge in 1979. In the past five years, three of the most populous countries in the region, Argentina, Colombia, and 11 states in Mexico, have legalized abortion until the 12th week, a win for feminist movements in the region. Further south, conservative and deeply religious Chile is on track to become the next country in the region to legalize abortion.
Latin America’s most populous country, Brazil, allows abortion only in cases of rape, when a woman’s life is in danger, and/or when the fetus has severe birth defects and no chance of survival. But the country’s legal processes often do not respect these parameters. Since President Bolsonaro took office in 2019, over 30 bills have been introduced to tighten existing abortion laws.
The variance in national stances on abortion in Latin America also includes in more conservative laws. Seven countries in the hemisphere have strict laws banning abortion under any circumstance. Deeply religious and conservative societies are cited as reasons for these strict bans on abortion. In some cases, such as Nicaragua, authoritarian governments are the main reason for these laws.
A Unified Message Leads to Success
Latin American women face high levels of gender-based violence, femicide (the killing of a woman due to her gender), and historically low levels of gender equality. The “Ni Una Menos” movement (Not one [Woman] Less) started in Argentina in 2015 after a series of femicides shook the country. The movement then shifted from protesting gender-based violence to advocating for reproductive rights, laying the path for women’s issues to stand at the forefront of social causes. The message resonated with other feminist movements and resulted in a unified strategy and message throughout the region.
Chile’s feminist movement recognized an opportunity during the 2019 protests. Initially, Chileans took to the streets to protest a hike in subway fares. However during these protests, women’s issues, including abortion rights, garnered a following and became a priority when drafting the country’s new Magna Carta. “I think it’s important to understand that you can’t separate sexual and reproductive rights from democracy,” explains Sáenz.
In the United States, the abortion debate focuses primarily on the right to bodily autonomy and the right to privacy. But Sáenz says that while movements in Latin America also recognize the importance of bodily autonomy, they position abortion as an issue of reproductive justice and democratic governance that is inseparable from sexual and reproductive health rights. This focus on democracy really touched a nerve in Latin American societies, from conservative Chile to more progressive Argentina. “It is really impressive to see how fast the change happened in Latin America and [it is] something that women in the United States can start to learn from and replicate.”
Colombia legalized abortion this year up until 24 weeks of gestation, becoming the country with the most progressive abortion rights legislation. The ruling argued that women who become pregnant, particularly those in vulnerable situations, are more at risk of violence and poverty when the option of a legal abortion does not exist. Since December 2020, abortion is legal and free in Argentina, after years of activism and a failed attempt to pass legislation in 2018. In September 2021, Mexico’s Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to criminalize women and gestating individuals who seek an abortion. The ruling does not make abortion legal in all of Mexico, but sets a judicial precedent for the future.
These changes in abortion law have catapulted Latin America’s feminist movements to the world stage. “This is an issue about autonomy with deep ties with [lack of] equality and poverty,” says Sáenz. “Movements from these countries had the capacity to move barriers that 15 years ago were absolutely impossible to move.”
Latin American feminist movements are not predicting a ripple effect of restricted abortion rights in the region due to the current U.S. context. But, they are paying close attention to any successful anti-abortion strategies used abroad to remain diligent and prepared in their home countries. “I think that the lesson we can learn from this is that rights are never fully guaranteed. We should always be ready to continue to fight for our rights. We cannot think that just because we have these rights, we can’t lose them. Rights are fragile,” says Sáenz.
Beatriz García Nice is a Program Coordinator and Gender-Based Violence Project Lead at the Wilson Center’s Latin America Program.
Sources: AP News; BBC News Mundo; Center for Reproductive Rights; Council on Foreign Relations; Foreign Policy; Gender Equality Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL); Guttmacher Institute; Plaza Central Podcast; The Washington Post; The World Bank; United Nations (ECLAC); U.S. Supreme Court; VOX
Photo Credit: A feminist demonstration in Puebla, Mexico, to commemorate International Women’s Day and demand abortion legalization in the state of Puebla in 2021, courtesy of Alejandro_Munoz, Shutterstock.com
This post first appeared on New Security Beat