Reproductive rights activists across Latin America have vowed to protect hard-fought gains in their own territories as they brace for potential ripple effects if the US supreme court overturns Roe vs Wade – the 1973 ruling which guarantees the right to abortion.
Latin America has some of the most draconian anti-abortion laws in the world. But feminist movements have fought for decades to chip away at the prohibitions, and in recent years a younger, diverse generation of activists has mobilized in massive numbers to help clinch a string of victories in traditionally conservative countries.
Now, the possibility that the US could be moving in the opposite direction has prompted bewilderment, fear and indignation among campaigners from Mexico to Argentina.
“The segment of society that wants to return us to the dark ages is real,” said Ana Cristina González Vélez, a Colombian doctor and co-founder of Mesa por la Vida, an organization that was part of the successful campaign for decriminalization of abortion in Colombia. “This has to be a wake-up call, that a legal victory is not a cultural one.”
A February ruling by Colombia’s constitutional court – which decriminalized abortion until the 24th week of pregnancy – was the latest in a series of gains by reproductive rights activists.
In 2020, Argentina’s marea verde – green wave – protests pushed the country’s congress to legalize elective abortion until the 14th week of pregnancy. Less than a year later, Mexico’s highest court declared a complete abortion ban was unconstitutional – although statutes outlawing abortion are still on the books in most of Mexico’s 32 states.
Brazil – where terminations are only allowed in cases of rape, risk to the woman’s life and certain congenital conditions – and Chile are also facing pivotal moments in the fight for legalization.
But the importance of Roe vs Wade across the region cannot be overstated, said Debora Diniz, a Brazilian law professor and human rights activist.
“In a country that is a political, financial, military empire, a supreme court decision has a contagious effect. Because everything moves together,” said Diniz, who co-founded Anis – Institute of Bioethics, Human Rights and Gender, an NGO pushing for the court in Brazil to decriminalize elective abortion.
Argentina was able to secure change through legislation, but the effort took years and has been difficult to replicate in other democracies ravaged by past military dictatorships or still governed by a patriarchal ruling class, she said.
“For Latin American countries, like Brazil, like Mexico, like Colombia, the US supreme court was a very important precedent behind the simple idea that courts are a legitimate space in which to decide abortion [rights],” said Diniz.
Demonstrators protest against the rejection of the law to decriminalize abortion in Veracruz, Mexico. Photograph: Carlos Tischler/Rex/Shutterstock
The Mexican lawyer and abortion rights campaigner Melissa Ayala said that the courts in Mexico were strongly on the side of women’s reproductive rights now. But she warned that anti-abortion groups that have been gathering forces in the region will now take a page out of the US playbook. Mariela Belski, executive director of Amnesty International Argentina, agreed.
“The threat has been there since the legalization [allowing abortion] was passed,” she said. “We are very worried about the strong anti-rights groups that we are seeing.”
Such concerns are all the more pressing because while abortion may be legal in Argentina, access still varies dramatically between regions.
Women in Argentina are not prepared to cede any ground, Belski said, adding that they would flood the streets at the first sign of any fresh threat to their legal rights.
Her advice to US counterparts was exactly that. “Take to the streets. Mobilize in massive numbers,” she said, and work in a bipartisan way. “I think that the secret in Argentina was the cross-section of legislators who were fighting for the same cause. There wasn’t political division.”
Added Diniz: “We have to believe in the green wave. The situation in Latin America was so desperate, and we managed to bring about change.”
In several Latin American countries the situation remains desperate: Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador maintain absolute prohibitions in all circumstances, and women have been given long prison sentences even in cases where they suffered miscarriages.
In Honduras, the government responded to the growing strength of legalization campaigns by enshrining its total abortion ban in its constitution. “Things couldn’t be worse,” said Neesa Medina, a member of feminist collective Somos Muchas.
It was not lost on Medina that the people most affected by an abortion ban in the United States will be the most vulnerable: minorities, migrants, the undocumented.
“Latinas,” she added. “There are so many stories that link us as societies. It’s our neighbors, our families, our cousins, aunts, who are going to feel the repercussions directly.”
But activists across the region said that their own recent histories offer proof that progress can be fought for. “We’re so used to looking to the United States, but this is a very good moment to look to the south,” said Ayala.
This article was amended on 5 May 2022 to correct the spelling of Roe v Wade.