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OPINION

Latin America moves forward in legalizing abortion as the US rolls back access. What gives?

With Roe v. Wade in peril, are there any lessons for Americans in the extraordinary green tide that Latin America is experiencing?

An abortion-rights activist with the message above her eyebrows that reads in Spanish: "My body, my decision" attends a rally outside the Colombian Constitutional Court while judges continue discussions on the decriminalization of abortion in Bogota, Feb. 9. The court ruled on Feb. 21 that women can get abortions until the 24th week of pregnancy without any permits from lawyers or doctors.Fernando Vergara/Associated Press

In a remarkable turn of events, Latin America is opening up abortion access to more and more women while the United States is moving backward.

And it’s been happening fast: In just over a year, three of the most populous countries in Latin America — Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia — have decriminalized abortion, breaking with decades of precedent and powerful religious influence from the Catholic Church and the growing evangelical movement.

How did the paradigm of abortion access shift so quickly in such a socially conservative region? And now that a potential reversal of Roe v. Wade looms in the horizon in the United States, can American women’s rights activist learn anything from their Latin American counterparts as they fight to keep abortion legal?

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Reproductive rights activists have worked and organized in the region for decades, but the trigger of the current momentum can be traced back to Argentina in late 2020 when the Argentine Congress approved a bill to legalize abortion up to 14 weeks. Argentina then became the first major country in the region to expand access to abortion in such a dramatic way. The symbol of women’s rights activists was green bandannas with the slogan “Sexual education to decide, contraceptives to not abort, legal abortion to not die.” And the so-called green wave — “la marea verde” — was born.

An abortion-rights activist wears an iconic green handkerchief during a protest in favor of decriminalizing abortion, outside the Argentine Congress during a government-ordered lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in Buenos Aires, May 28, 2020.Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

The wave gathered momentum as feminist organizations and advocates in other Latin American countries amped up the pressure, drawing inspiration from the Argentine victory and borrowing green as a symbol of the movement. The color soon became synonymous with activists’ demands for greater protections for women and support for their right to choose. In the fall of 2021, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that the criminalization of abortion is unconstitutional, setting a major precedent that paved the way for the legalization of the procedure all over the country. (Five states in Mexico, plus Mexico City, had already decriminalized abortion up to 12 weeks.)

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And now the latest country to join the green wave is Colombia, where, in a historic ruling last week, the nation’s highest court decriminalized abortion up to 24 weeks. It is an extraordinary trio of victories, particularly as the US Supreme Court prepares to hear a case that could very well overturn Roe v. Wade.

Meanwhile, abortion restrictions keep popping up. Case in point: Texas, where one of the most strict abortion laws in the country went into effect last September. The law not only bans most abortions but also deputizes any private citizen to sue doctors who perform an abortion or anyone else who “aids and abets” one.

The irony is not lost on many legal experts who follow reproductive rights issues: Roe v. Wade inspired Latin American abortion rights advocates for many years. And now that rights are being chipped away in the United States, the proverbial tables have turned: It’s time for American feminist activists to draw inspiration and learn from their peers south of the border.

According to Ximena Casas, researcher for the Americas in the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, one of the biggest lessons is that activists in Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia emphasized that a ban on abortion with some exceptions (like rape) — which for years has been the norm in some Latin American countries with different variations — has not been enough to keep women safe.

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“The younger generations are saying, why [allow abortion] only in those cases?” Casas said in an interview. “This model of ‘You can have this right but only under these circumstances’ is inefficient because it’s not stopping unsafe abortions. And it mostly affects poor women, and it still often generates criminal prosecution.

“The goal is to take abortion completely out of the criminal code. Latin American activists are saying, ‘Why does this need to be regulated by criminal law? That’s not right.’ ”

Casas said conversations have already started between Latin American feminist organizations and women’s rights activists here. A big element is solidarity — Argentinian, Mexican, and Colombian activists and legal experts all leaned on each other to fight their own domestic battles. “A big part is to understand that abortion is not a privilege but a right for all, and it can’t be only for a few states,” said Casas.

She is right. The combined population of Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia — a whopping 225 million people — now has access to legalized abortion, and it didn’t happen by mistake. Abortion rights and reproductive autonomy are issues that affect us all — men and women alike, and whether you live in Dallas, Cartagena, or Boston.


Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.