In the past few years, abortion rights struggles in Latin America have gained significant momentum, as some countries in the region have liberalized their normative frameworks and expanded abortion access. This dossier focuses specifically on Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico, which saw notable changes in the direction of abortion decriminalization and legalization. These developments are in stark contrast with the 2022 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, which in 1973 established the basis for legal abortion as a constitutionally protected right at the national level.1 Now, as a patchwork of disparate state policies and court interpretations regulate abortion across the United States—ranging from legal and accessible abortion to punitive bans and myriad practical obstacles—and as other countries across the hemisphere have also become arenas of contentious abortion politics, a transnational dialogue on abortion rights is sorely needed.
In Latin America, too, liberalizing efforts have had to contend with some of the most draconian abortion laws in the world, with countries such as the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua still upholding total abortion bans (Center for Reproductive Rights n.d.). In the context of fear, confusion, disinformation, and inequality, the specter of death continues to show its face as restrictive policies foment unsafe abortion practices in clandestinity. Even so, safer methods of self-managed abortion have emerged, namely with medication such as misoprostol, which has been popularized in part thanks to activist efforts across the Americas. Nevertheless, as punitive laws take hold and those opposed to abortion try to close any loophole, not everyone who becomes pregnant has or will have access to safe abortions—even if prohibition fails to deter the practice. Among pregnant people, those who are in conditions of social vulnerability and marginalization are also more likely to be criminalized (e.g., Viterna 2014; Goodwin 2017). Beyond potential adverse health or legal consequences, the ability to make basic decisions about one's body is intricately connected to the recognition of women and people with other gender identities who may become pregnant as full persons with human rights. From this perspective, legal, safe, and accessible abortion is not just a matter of practical needs, but one indicator of who counts and does not count as a citizen with equal rights in a democracy (Sutton and Vacarezza 2021).
The articles in this dossier reveal a variety of activist strategies to advance abortion rights in Latin America. Although Argentina was not the first country in the region to legalize abortion, its abortion rights movement, popularly known as the Green Tide, has recently caught the public's attention across borders. Indeed, recognizable by its emblematic green kerchief, the movement has inspired activists in other parts of the world who also adopted the symbol in their fight to end restrictive abortion policies. Argentina's multiprong struggle included a broad-ranging coalition that pushed for legislative change—obtaining a victory in 2020 when Congress approved abortion legalization—yet other countries are making inroads through other paths. Notably, activists in Colombia succeeded in obtaining the decriminalization of abortion until the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy—a rather expansive time frame for abortion in Latin America—via a decision of the Constitutional Court in 2022. Meanwhile, Mexico has also been moving toward abortion rights expansion. Mexico City was a pioneer in Latin America, decriminalizing the interruption of pregnancy in 2007. Since 2019, various Mexican states have liberalized their abortion laws as well. In 2021, the Mexican Supreme Court declared that the absolute criminalization of abortion is unconstitutional (Nelson 2022). These progressive legal reforms, of course, cannot be understood without attention to the movements that have patiently, creatively, and resourcefully pushed for transformation. These efforts have included not only highly visible strategies such as street protests, but also the largely invisible work of activists who, even in the context of restrictive laws, have taken it upon themselves to assist those who need an abortion.
At a time in which abortion rights are even under threat in places that had a long-established right to abortion, notably the United States, the movements in Latin America can provide inspiration and concrete ideas to defend this right and to guarantee access for the people who need it. Indeed, this is a crucial time to consider how this political acumen can travel from South to North, be transformed as it moves across borders, and feed new strategies in different contexts. As the articles in this dossier show, abortion rights movements in the region are multi-situated and multi-strategic. Even as organizations may choose one key path to change the legal framework—for instance, legislative reform or court cases—activists as a whole have deployed a multiplicity of approaches, including plans for alternative avenues should a chosen strategy fail. As savvy political actors who amassed a wealth of knowledge while seeking social transformation, activists endeavored to diagnose political scenarios, create new possibilities, and seize the opportunities that became available.
In places such as Argentina, as discussed in María Alicia Gutiérrez's article, a national campaign was able to build a critical mass of supporters, which in turn generated new political openings that paved the way for dramatically changing the abortion law. Their strategy paid off over time. The legislation shifted from considering voluntary abortion as a crime to upholding it as a right when performed within the first fourteen weeks of pregnancy, and afterward, in cases of rape or risk to the health or life of the pregnant person. As Ana Cristina González-Vélez and Isabel Cristina Jaramillo Sierra chronicle in their article about Colombia, given that the legislative reform path had not borne fruit in that country, activists concentrated their efforts on strategic litigation. Their incremental approach yielded significant changes over the years, shifting from a total ban on abortion, to permitted abortion under certain circumstances, to the Constitutional Court's decision decriminalizing voluntary abortion up to the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy. Beyond legal reform efforts, many activists in the region have worked to guarantee access to safe abortion—an approach that Amy Krauss's essay on feminist acompañantes in Mexico illustrates, prompting important ethical and political considerations.
Activists who target the legal framework in different Latin American countries—either through high-impact litigation in courts of justice or lobbing legislators to change the law—often aim to take abortion out of the criminal law sphere. They consider penalization a blunt instrument that does more harm than good and that reproduces social inequalities. Indeed, women criminalized for abortion or obstetric emergencies tend to be among those subordinated based on gender, class, race-ethnicity, and/or other intersecting vectors of inequality (e.g., Campaña Nacional et al. 2020). Still, those who are determined to have an abortion are likely not stopped by punitive laws. In other words, criminalization does not prevent the practice, but merely sends abortion underground, fostering fear, stigma, and potentially dangerous abortion conditions. If lives have been saved, it is not to the credit of the criminal law, but the supportive networks that have helped preserve the health and life of already existing persons—women, trans men, nonbinary people, and gender nonconforming individuals seeking to end their pregnancies. As punitive laws spread in different places, the regulation of abortion medications such as misoprostol and mifepristone also becomes a disputed terrain, raising questions of who is to control the circulation and access to such essential medications (Prandini Assis and Erdman 2021).
One important idea and strategy that Latin American activists have emphasized is the need for the social decriminalization of abortion, as the articles on Argentina and Colombia point out. The cases of these countries reveal how activists are aware that it is not sufficient to change the legislation or the judicial interpretations of the law (that is, to prevent unfair criminalization and/or unsafe abortions). They also want to transform the meanings and perceptions of abortion so as to destigmatize the practice and build the social consensus that helps create and maintain legal reform. In the struggle to socially decriminalize abortion many micro- as well macro-scale strategies emerged, largely directed to changing the social conversation both in the public as well as private spheres. From the use of mainstream and social media spaces to participation in state public hearings, to massive presence in the streets, to interventions in the education system, activists developed and disseminated persuasive arguments that challenged the “common sense” notions undergirding abortion bans. As Verónica Gago (2020) observes in Argentina, for example, the abortion debate was deeply influenced by “‘the language of the streets’ [ . . . ] that allows for combining demands for justice, visionary languages, and complex diagnoses that account for the intersectionality of violence, and even more so, of the politics of desire” (n.p.).
The need for diverse voices speaking about the need to expand abortion rights has been a central piece in moving toward legal reform and influencing public opinion and feelings: it includes the woman or trans man sharing their abortion experiences; the actress making a statement for abortion decriminalization in the media; and the artist exposing hidden dimensions of abortion through photography, poetry, or performance art. In institutional spaces, we may find a teacher talking with students about comprehensive sex education including abortion. In the halls of congress, we would find activists lobbying legislators about the need to debate and support abortion reform. Health professionals have spoken about the everyday realities of abortion and developed networks to guarantee abortions permitted by the law. And feminist lawyers have documented the harm of abortion criminalization and litigated related cases. Feminist activists have also accompanied abortions with or without permission from the law, prioritizing the call to support people in need. The incremental yet ultimately massive adoption of the movement's green kerchief, by people from all walks of life, shows that activists were successful in changing many people's perceptions, even as obstacles and ingrained ideologies remain. They partly achieved these successes through coalition-building strategies that included not only sexual and reproductive rights organizations, but a broader swath of groups—labor unions, human rights organizations, professional associations, political parties, movements dealing with other issues—all of which helped bring abortion to a wide variety of spaces and conversations.
Besides legal change, activists also developed creative political strategies at the margins of the law to facilitate access to safe abortions using medication. Misoprostol is a drug designed to treat gastric ulcers that started to be used in the late 1980s by Brazilian women as an abortifacient (Costa 1998). Scientific studies later tested its efficacy and, despite ongoing controversies over its regulation, misoprostol became included in the World Health Organization guidelines as a safe method to induce abortion (alone or in combination with mifepristone). Starting in 2008, feminist organizations in Latin America took this technological innovation and developed telephone hotlines aiming to share information about how to use misoprostol to safely self-manage abortions (Drovetta 2015). During a period in which over 97% of women in Latin America lived in countries with restrictive legal frameworks (Guttmacher Institute 2018), this was a critical pragmatic intervention to facilitate access to safe abortion in the face of criminalization. This approach also had important political implications since it involved influential sectors of feminism less interested in negotiating with the state or medical institutions. The strategy grew and evolved in different countries, leading to a new wave of organizations that developed innovative models of feminist and community-based abortion care. These activists—popularly known as acompañantes/companions or socorristas/first responders—share information on how to use the medications and also offer counseling, attentive listening, and emotional support throughout the process (Krauss 2019; Burton 2020; Vivaldi and Stutzin 2021).
As the essay by Amy Krauss shows, feminist acompañantes brought about a comprehensive vision of abortion care that involves much more than information about how to access or administer abortion medication. Acompañantes in different countries have generated and shared essential knowledge about abortion and engaged in transformative politics trough the organization of abortion accompaniment networks. At the practical level, they deal with logistic and security issues helping to arrange for transport and financial support, sort out legal and bureaucratic obstacles, and navigate state and medical surveillance, among others. Importantly, many activists became abortion care experts in their own right and showed that lay persons and communities can take this matter in their own hands, providing effective and holistic care. Since 2018, these organizations have come together in the Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Network of Abortion Accompaniment.2 The Red Compañera gathers twenty-one organizations in fifteen different countries and, again, demonstrates the need for transnational political coordination and solidarity.
Facilitating access to safe abortions has proven to be an important strategy both in contexts of criminalization and legality. Even in countries that decriminalized or expanded the grounds for abortion, acompañantes continue to be essential political actors. They facilitate access for persons who are unable to obtain medical care due to different barriers or who prefer not to interact with the medical system. Sometimes people who are pregnant have privacy concerns, are overwhelmed by bureaucratic requirements, or have a history of violence and abuse that make them reluctant to go to a medical setting, particularly if they have other safe options. Also, acompañantes provide a kind of person-centered and attentive care that existing institutions often fail to offer.
Over the course of at least four decades, abortion rights organizations and activists in Latin America and the Caribbean have developed multiple political strategies for abortion legalization and access. In recent years, they won considerable victories that brought about legal changes and secured recognition of basic human rights for women, trans men, nonbinary people, and gender nonconforming individuals. These groups have developed utopian visions of reproductive justice that sometimes go beyond what can be codified by the law and state institutions. In that sense, they argue that abortion should not be considered a crime, nor it should be considered an exception, permissible under certain circumstances. Activists have challenged the authority of the law and they have also defied medical authority on the issue. Confronted with state criminalization and medical violence, they created community networks to guarantee access to safe abortions with medicines, offering models of feminist, horizontal, and compassionate care.
Although abortion is a very concrete practice, activists transformed it into a vivid field of political imagination and contestation. Movements managed to seize and adapt medical knowledge and technologies; they operated within the law as well as stretched and challenged its limits; they coalesced with different political actors and organizations; and they maneuvered to overcome state vigilance and criminalization. Additionally, activists worked to transform discourses, meanings, and feelings that stigmatize abortion. All in all, these movements are working toward a tangible utopia that is not far in distance nor in time. Reproductive justice is a day-to-day endeavor to reimagine freedom. It brings into the picture all the social supports that are needed to make human rights a reality, specifically the right to “bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities” (SisterSong n.d.: n.p.). In that sense, abortion is but one of multiple interconnected social justice demands that feminists in Latin America and elsewhere have been making to transform society at all levels.
See Dobbs v. Jackson's Women's Health Organization, the Supreme Court decision that on June 24, 2022, overruled precedents asserting a constitutional protection of abortion in the United States (Supreme Court of the United States 2022).