Latin American activists undeterred despite US abortion rollback

Women’s rights advocates across Americas region say their struggle goes on after top US court overturns Roe v Wade.

Women protest in defence of abortion rights in Colombia
Women demonstrate in front of Colombia's constitutional court in support of decriminalising abortion, in Bogota, Colombia, February 21, 2022 [File: Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

Feminists in Latin America have long understood their struggle for abortion rights to know no borders. So when the United States Supreme Court decision that upended the right to an abortion in the country became official last week, the blow was personal across North and South America.

“We can’t confide in the state – we only have each other,” said Crystal P Lira, a member of the Tijuana, Mexico-based feminist group Bloodys Collective. “And there are many of us.”

Lira is among a contingent of activists across Latin America that have been organising and liaising with counterparts in the US to share knowledge and strategies for the post-Roe v Wade era.

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn that landmark 1973 ruling that had protected a woman’s right to an abortion has sent shock waves around the world. But feminists like Lira are promising to keep the pressure on in their own regions, even as they fear that the political and religious forces working against abortion rights will be emboldened.

In the case of the Bloodys Collective, that has included driving across the Mexico-US border to mail packets of misoprostol and mifepristone, drugs that are used to have medical abortions, across the US. “The work that we’ve all been doing in Latin America is not going to retreat,” Lira told Al Jazeera.

“We’re going to keep doing it,” said Lira. “Now they have really left things in our hands – and with our hands we’re going to ensure that the medicine gets to women.”

‘Air of positivity’

Latin America has some of the harshest laws against abortion in the world, most often rooted in religious doctrine.

But a younger generation of feminists has pushed the issue to the forefront of national agendas and helped clinch a string of reproductive rights victories for the “marea verde” – or green wave, named after the green handkerchiefs worn by abortion rights supporters across the continents.

In December 2020, Argentina legalised elective abortion until the 14th week of pregnancy and later in certain circumstances. Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalised abortion in 2021, although it remains heavily restricted in most states, and earlier this year Colombia’s constitutional court decriminalised abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. Abortion is also legal in Uruguay, Cuba, and Guyana.

The next frontier is Chile, which will vote in September on a new constitution that enshrines a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. “Chile would be the first country in the world that establishes [this right] in the constitution,” said Lieta Vivaldi, co-director of ABOFEM, an association of feminist lawyers in Chile.

A key part of the journey in the country has been the “social decriminalisation” that sought to eliminate the taboo attached to abortion, Vivaldi told Al Jazeera. She also singled out the importance of electing representatives that support abortion rights, and alliances across the region.

“Obviously the United States, for better or for worse, has always been a leader for the region and a decision like this is very negative, but we have the strong example of our friends in Argentina, and in Colombia, and now this constitutional process in Chile that shows that there is an air of positivity in Latin America,” she said.

US influence

Rosana Fanjul, a member of Argentina’s legal abortion campaign, said the US Supreme Court decision reinforces the importance of enshrining the right in law rather than relying on court decisions. “It’s harder to undo a law rather than depend on the interpretation of a court,” she told Al Jazeera.

But even with legalisation, the battle is not over in Argentina. The discourse emanating from a far-right politician, who has promised to quash the Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversities if he ever becomes president, worries feminists like Fanjul.

Across Latin America, groups that have fought against the legalisation of abortion in their countries celebrated the overturning of Roe v Wade, calling it “a miracle”, as historic as the abolition of slavery, and “a light in the dark”.

“This is strengthening their politics. We can’t ignore the fact that a country like the United States has a huge political influence, it’s not a small thing, that’s why we are very clearly taking a stand against it,” she said.

In Honduras, the battle is uphill. The small Central American country has some of the most draconian laws in the world: abortion is completely illegal – even if a woman’s life is in danger – and that prohibition was enshrined last year in its constitution.

Neesa Medina, a women’s rights campaigner in Honduras with an organisation called Somos Muchas, said the religious right is also organising. She pointed to a recent gathering in Nashville of the Union Iberoamericana de Parlamentarios Cristianos, which includes evangelical elected representatives from across the region.

Several legislators from Honduras participated, along with some from Peru, Argentina, Mexico and the US. Participants promised to keep working on their priorities, including the “pro life” or anti-abortion rights agenda. “They are clearly identifying strategies to impede the advance of abortion rights,” said Medina.

The Supreme Court decision filled her with “humility”, she told Al Jazeera, “that no victory is ever complete.” But she said it also reaffirmed the approach of activists in Latin America to fight for every right every day, even when the odds are stacked against them.

“For them, [our situation] is a dystopia, but it’s been our reality for 40 years,” said Medina, who finds comfort in small expressions of resistance, such as finding allies on the street brandishing the green handkerchief in quiet defiance. “We’re showing them that even within those hostile and restrictive environments, it’s still possible to build and … have hope.”

Source: Al Jazeera