How to Build a Successful Abortion Rights Movement
By Nara Milanich and Nayla Vacarezza – June 24, 2022
The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a ruling that overturns Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case granting access to abortion. Eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion will lead to bans in half of U.S. states. The decision, while widely expected, is devastating to abortion rights supporters nonetheless. Since a draft of the opinion was leaked in May, thousands of people in communities across the United States have marched in protest. Among the chants and signs was a new symbol: the green handkerchief. Originating in Argentina, green bandanas have become ubiquitous among reproductive rights activists across Latin America.
The handkerchiefs are a reminder that, whereas the United States has now repealed the 49-year-old ruling that legalized abortion at the federal level, parts of Latin America are moving in the opposite direction. Just five years ago, 97 percent of women in Latin America and the Caribbean lived in countries where abortion was illegal or severely restricted (the only exceptions were Cuba, Guyana, Uruguay, and the federal district of Mexico City). The region was home to some of the most draconian abortion bans in the world—policies that endure in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Suriname.
But over the past two years, the three most populous Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America decriminalized abortion in rapid succession—first Argentina, then Mexico, and most recently Colombia. Other countries are on the brink of dramatic change, as well. Until recently, abortion in Chile was prohibited in all circumstances, owing to a law instituted in 1989 by the dictator General Augusto Pinochet as he left office. In 2017, a reform introduced certain narrow exceptions. Now Chile may make global history. A draft of the country’s new constitution includes an article enshrining abortion rights—apparently the most explicit such protection of any constitution in the world.
These remarkable strides reflect decades of struggle. The hostile political environments and dire state of reproductive rights in the region required Latin American activists to organize across borders, form strategic alliances within their own countries, and explore ways to expand safe abortion access at the margins of the law. Against seemingly long odds, their efforts ultimately led to decriminalization. As the United States confronts a reversal of rights once considered untouchable, it is worth considering the lessons that Latin American feminists’ experiences may hold. Even faced with hostile politics, a movement that brings together a diverse array of social groups with a stake in abortion rights can, in the end, achieve change.
THE EMERGENCE OF A MOVEMENT
Latin America has a long history of women’s rights activism. In 1981, more than 200 women from across the region gathered in Bogotá, Colombia, at the first Encuentro Feminista Latinoamericano y del Caribe. Held every two to three years, the meetings served as a springboard for a new wave of feminist activism in the region. The Encuentros, as they became known, created a space for activists and organizers to discuss issues, share experiences, and work through ideological and organizational conflicts. In sometimes heated discussions and intense late-night sessions, participants in the Encuentros debated strategy, generated resolutions, and found friendship and solidarity. These exchanges shaped feminist agendas within individual countries and built networks across them.
It was a seemingly unpropitious moment for women’s rights. Across the hemisphere, democracy was under assault and military governments and death squads waged dirty wars on civil society. At a time when political dissidents in many countries were being exiled or murdered, there was little room for social organizing of any kind, much less with the goal of progressive change.
The dire political circumstances shaped feminists’ approaches. Rather than treating their cause as a separate, special issue, activists pushed for the end of dictatorial regimes and insisted that women’s rights were inextricable from the wider struggle for human rights, justice, and democracy. In this view, authoritarian states are the ultimate patriarchy, and such societies must therefore work to achieve, in the formulation popularized by Chilean feminist Julieta Kirkwood, “democracy in the nation and in the home.” Feminists worked with popular and human rights movements, Black and indigenous organizations, and trade unions, influencing the ideas and strategies of these movements and being influenced by them in turn.
Even faced with hostile politics, an abortion rights movement can, in the end, achieve change.
In highly unequal societies, Latin American feminists were forced to contend with differences across class and race. In the first decades of the twentieth century, socialist and anarchist feminists put working women and their interests at the center of discussions of women’s rights. Later, in the 1970 and 1980s, feminists struggled inside leftist parties and organizations, where gender and reproductive rights were often dismissed as imperialist diversions from the real issue: class struggle. To contend with this resistance, feminists concentrated on introducing gender into discussions of class. At the Encuentros, tensions emerged between educated middle-class women who self-identified as feminists and poor and working-class members of grassroots women’s organizations. Black and indigenous women insisted on representation and on introducing race and ethnicity into conversations about class and gender. The politics could be contentious, but Latin American feminist movements emerged from these conflicts stronger and more inclusive.
Early Encuentros embraced reproductive rights, but the fifth meeting, held in San Bernardo, Argentina, in 1990, was an inflection point. Latin America had the highest rates of unsafe abortions in the world—and high levels of maternal mortality as a result. A resolution at the Encuentro declared “involuntary motherhood . . . a form of slavery” and designated September 28 as the Day of Abortion Rights for Women in Latin America and the Caribbean. (The date commemorates the passage of the Brazilian Free Womb Law of 1871, when children born to enslaved women were declared free.) Participants founded a regional campaign for the right to abortion with coordination among different organizations in each country. By 2011, that regional network had gone global; today, September 28 is recognized as International Safe Abortion Day.
THE POLITICAL TIDE SHIFTS
This historical genealogy indelibly shapes today’s movement. Latin American activists tend to frame the right to abortion as a human right and an essential aspect of full citizenship. They highlight the connections that restrictions on reproductive freedom have to inequalities across class, race, and sexuality. And they link the issue to other forms of oppression, including domestic and gender- and sexuality-based violence, femicide, and harassment. Their calls for abortion rights are therefore often tied to other social justice causes.
In Argentina, for example, activists demanded that abortion be not only legal and safe but also free, recognizing the disproportionate impact of abortion restrictions on the poor. Their demands were met: the law passed in 2020 legalizing abortion makes the procedure free of charge. It also protects the right to access contraception and sex education as part of a comprehensive approach to sexual and reproductive health. And it recognizes the right to access care by “women and persons with other gender identities with the capacity to gestate,” including transgender men and queer and nonbinary people, partly in recognition of the central roles that LGBTQ people and transgender activists played in the abortion rights movement.
The broad framing of abortion rights helped to galvanize a mass movement. Organizing for reproductive rights in Argentina began with a few persistent activists; today, some 700 groups belong to the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion, formed in 2005. This diverse, multigenerational grassroots coalition includes feminist and women’s organizations as well as human rights groups, high school and college student organizations, trade unions, academic institutions, political parties, and religious communities. The campaign’s chief strategy was to repeatedly introduce bills legalizing abortion. In 2018, a million people marched in the streets of Buenos Aires to exert pressure when, for the first time, legislators took up an abortion bill for debate. Although the law did not pass, the protests showed that opposition to abortion had become a political liability. And in another first, candidates in the 2019 presidential election were forced to take a position on the issue.
Latin American activists frame the right to abortion as a human right and an essential aspect of full citizenship.
During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with recently elected Argentine President Alberto Fernández openly in favor of legalization, the movement continued to exert pressure though mass media, social media, political lobbying, and street mobilization. Finally, in December 2020, the Argentine Senate voted to legalize abortion until the 14th week of pregnancy.
Highlighting the unequal burden of criminalization proved a powerful political strategy in Colombia, too. A movement called Causa Justa—a coalition of women’s groups, feminist organizations, health-care providers, and researchers—pursued social change through the courts. In 2022, the strategy paid off. Colombia’s constitutional court, ruling on a case Causa Justa had filed, decriminalized abortion. Its decision underscored the fact that women who are particularly vulnerable—on account of their status as a migrant, for example—are also those most likely to be prosecuted for abortion and to face the worst health outcomes from unsafe procedures. In other words, in the court’s view, the inequitable consequences of abortion restrictions constituted a reason to abolish them.
Since 2015, a broad political coalition for abortion rights has also emerged in Chile, with the Mesa Acción por el Aborto en Chile, a coalition of women’s, feminist, and human rights groups. Feminists were at the center of the estallido social (social outburst), a series of massive protests that took place across the country beginning in October 2019. After months of social unrest, the demonstrations led to dramatic institutional change. Chileans voted overwhelmingly for a new constitution—and for the convention charged with its rewriting to include equal numbers of male and female delegates. According to one study, 57 percent of the 155 delegates elected to the constitutional convention articulated one or more positions that the investigators identified as “feminist.” Eventually, delegates produced a draft constitution that includes a clause guaranteeing that the state will provide “the conditions for pregnancy, voluntary interruption of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood to be voluntary and protected.” Chileans will vote on the new constitution in September.
These political successes have been decades in the making, and one country’s step forward energizes activists across the region. But Latin American feminists have not been focused exclusively on legal change. Another crucial aspect of grassroots activism in recent years is the development of networks of acompañantes (companions). Operating in at least 15 countries, acompañantes assist women with self-managed abortions using misoprostol, a drug that was originally prescribed to treat ulcers but can also be used to terminate a pregnancy. The acompañantes provide information and emotional support throughout the process.
In the short run, accompaniment networks have expanded access to safe abortion in countries where the procedure is illegal. (The World Health Organization has declared self-managed, medication-based abortions to be both safe and effective.) In the longer run, accompaniment has also proved a powerful political strategy. The networks help destigmatize abortion by transforming the procedure from a secret, solitary, and shameful act to an experience that women encounter in solidarity with one another. Indeed, reproductive rights activism in Latin America has long pursued not just legal decriminalization but also social decriminalization—shaping cultural understandings in an effort to normalize abortion.
In Mexico, as in Argentina and Colombia, acompañantes have continued their work even after the decriminalization of abortion. Women often prefer the autonomy of self-managed abortions and the empathetic care of the acompañantes over alienating encounters with medical systems. Many activists also see the networks as a hedge against the possibility that future governments could restrict access to abortion—removing funding, for example—even if they do not directly challenge the law.
THE STRUGGLE AHEAD
The abortion rights movement in the United States differs from its Latin American counterparts in significant ways. Mainstream U.S. pro-choice groups frame abortion in relatively narrow terms: politically, in terms of the individual’s right to bodily autonomy and choice, and legally, in terms of the individual right to privacy. At key moments, legality for the privileged has taken precedence over accessibility for all. Just three years after Roe v. Wade, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, banning federal Medicaid funding of abortions. For many low-income women—who are also disproportionately women of color—the law effectively blocked access to the constitutional right to an abortion. Activists failed to mobilize successfully against the law or the avalanche of additional restrictions that followed.
But outside the mainstream U.S. pro-choice movement are groups that more closely resemble the activism that exists elsewhere in the hemisphere. In 1994, an organization of Black women called Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice coined the term “reproductive justice,” which couches abortion within the frameworks of social justice and human rights. Reproductive justice is defined as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities”—a definition that emphasizes access, not just choice, and frames the fight for legal abortion as part of a much bigger struggle for reproductive autonomy, access, and well-being, especially for poor women and women of color. This is a strategy that opens the door for cooperation among organizations working across a broad array of social and economic issues.
In a post-Roe United States, activists will need to build the kind of robust foundation for abortion rights that made it possible for their Latin American peers to secure political change. They must mobilize different social movements and organizations. And they must strengthen alliances across borders. Regional solidarity seemed moot for the past half century, when the United States alone enshrined abortion rights in a hemisphere of criminalization. But now international cooperation may prove crucial to abortion access. Mexican acompañantes have already begun organizing to bring women seeking abortions in the United States south to Mexico—and to distribute advice and pills northward.
Latin American activists can provide their U.S. counterparts with a sobering perspective born of struggle. During decades of criminalization, they painstakingly worked to destigmatize abortion and to gather support for their campaigns, aware that it could take years to secure legal victory. But the bleak political landscape also led to innovation. The expansion of safe abortion access through acompañantes emerged in part because the paths to reform seemed closed.
Meanwhile, historical experiences of murderous authoritarianism drove home the difficult lesson that rights once given can also be taken away. As is now painfully obvious for supporters of abortion rights in the United States, a belief in their country as a beacon of democracy and progress created a dangerous complacency. To prevent the demise of Roe from becoming a permanent defeat, they must look abroad for inspiration about how to win back rights that many in the United States had come to take for granted.