Latin America can now lead the way on abortion rights

Mariela Belski

Mariela Belski

With the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade – the landmark 1973 ruling that enshrined the right to abortion in the United States – the global map of abortion rights has been reversed.

While in the second half of the 20th century the global North was at the forefront of abortion law reform, with the US among its leading exponents, today it is feminist and trans-feminist movements in Latin America that are advancing discussions that put reproductive autonomy and gender justice centre stage.

Over the past quarter of a century, more than 50 countries have liberalised abortion laws, but three recent cases in Latin America stand out. In December 2020, Argentina decriminalised and legalised abortion until the 14th week of gestation. In 2021, Mexico declared the criminalisation of abortion unconstitutional, although access to abortion still varies depending on the state. In February of this year, Colombia made abortion legal during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.

The movement that led to the liberalisation of abortion legislation in many Latin American nations has its roots in Argentina.

The origins of the fight for legal abortion care in Argentina go back to at least the1970s, when feminist healthcare organisations across the continent, and some progressive political parties, began to state the need to decriminalise abortion. However, the turning point for the movement came in 2003, when efforts to legalise abortion were incorporated into the agenda of the National Women’s Meeting in Argentina (ENM) – an annual gathering that brings women from different provinces of the country together to discuss ways to achieve gender equality. Two years later, the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, a civil society collective joining forces in support of abortion law reform, was created.

The green bandana soon emerged as a symbol of the campaign, and it rapidly became the symbol for reproductive justice demands across Argentina.

The colour green was not selected at random. In the Argentine social imagination, green represents liveliness and health, and by using green as its main colour, the campaign was sending the loud and clear message that abortion is healthcare and that, for so many, it is a lifeline.

We wore the green bandanas around our raised fists, or attached them to our purses and backpacks, to voice our demand for change and also demonstrate feminist solidarity.

Our campaign for legalisation grew steadily over the years. With trade union organisations, academics, political parties, LGTBQ+ activists, human rights organisations, teachers, healthcare providers, journalists, artists and eventually young people from all walks of life joining in, our movement soon transformed into what came to be known across the world as the Green Wave. By 2018, the Green Wave was flooding streets across the country.

From 1921 to 2020, Argentine legislation guaranteed access to a legal abortion only under certain conditions: when the pregnancy put the pregnant person’s life or health at risk, or when it was the result of a rape.

In 2018, thanks to the Green Wave effect, a bill submitted to the House of Representatives to expand access to legal abortion and further reproductive autonomy progressed to the debate stage for the first time. The women’s movement worked tirelessly to bring the demands for reproductive justice to the top of the public agenda during this period. Demonstrations were organised across the country and two huge vigils were held in Buenos Aires to coincide with the debates in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Thanks to these efforts, the abortion discussion received significant media attention. Reproductive justice also started to be discussed in schools and homes across Argentina.

The Senate still voted to reject the proposed bill in 2018, but the cultural battle over abortion was undoubtedly won that year. Abortion ceased to be a taboo, and instead became a core issue of public debate. The Green Wave had become unstoppable. Argentinian women had made it clear that they were unwilling to stop until they achieved reproductive autonomy.

This paved the way for the 2019 presidential and legislative elections to be dominated by discussions over sexual and reproductive rights. The candidates, for the first time in Argentine history, felt it necessary to make their positions on abortion public because a significant percentage of voters were unwilling to vote for candidates who were not committed to furthering gender equality and reproductive autonomy.

And, eventually, the Green Wave succeeded.

After a long and difficult fight  – and in the midst of a global pandemic – abortion was legalised in Argentina on December 30, 2020. On that historic day, after a heated 12-hour-long debate, the Senate passed a bill that allows the voluntary termination of a pregnancy up until and including the 14th week of gestation and gave Argentinian women control over their bodies.

The Green Wave achieved this victory by ensuring abortion was seen as a non-partisan topic of public discussion related to women’s rights and health. As a result, many legislators were able to break away from partisan loyalties to vote for the bill.

Argentina’s campaign inspired many others in the region, with the green bandana adopted by feminists across Latin America. Mexico and Colombia eventually followed in Argentina’s footsteps.

Today, as these countries celebrate the progress they made, the US is trying to come to terms with a Supreme Court decision that will pave the way for severe restrictions to be imposed on women’s access to safe and legal abortions. In several US states, women now stand to lose their right to abortion completely – a right that is critical for public health, gender equality and human rights.

This is undoubtedly a cause for alarm. The US has taken a massive step back in reproductive justice. But the Argentine experience demonstrates that achieving abortion rights is not a linear process. Any step forwards may be followed by a step backwards. And while many in the US may now feel like all is lost, Latin America demonstrates that there is always hope – being vocal, taking to the streets, demanding our voices be heard and getting organised delivers results even in the most hopeless of scenarios.

Argentina’s Green Wave may now serve as a blueprint for feminist and trans-feminist movements across the world. Drawing on the experiences of activists from other countries, and incorporating the lessons they learned in local battles is fundamental to advancing reproductive rights and securing reproductive autonomy for all women and people who can get pregnant, anywhere in the world.

The fight is far from over. Feminist and trans-feminist movements across the world must continue to support and provide feedback to each other until everyone can make free and informed decisions about their own bodies.

 

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