It’s Time for American Feminists to Learn From Latin America’s Abortion-Rights Movement

You guys left the streets,” Mexican feminist Verónica Cruz told me last September.

We were speaking eight days after a law took effect in Texas that banned abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy—and just a few days after Mexico’s top court ruled that abortion is no longer a crime in that country.

I had asked Cruz a version of a question she had heard from US feminists before: How can our movement be more like yours?

“We have never left the streets,” Cruz told me. In the United States, she suggested the legalization of abortion had made feminists too comfortable. Mexican feminists, fighting against the widespread criminalization of abortion, never had a comfortable option. “And feminism should always be uncomfortable, no?” she said.

On this International Women’s Day, people fighting the erosion of abortion rights in the United States can find signs of hope outside our borders, from Mexico to Thailand, where the parliament voted to legalize first-trimester abortion last year. Just a few weeks ago, Colombia’s constitutional court decriminalized abortion up to 24 weeks. In 2020,Argentina’s Congress voted to legalize it through 14 weeks.

The street mobilizations tend to be the only part of these victories that we see. Images of hundreds of thousands of young women in the streets of cities like Buenos Aires can inspire a sense of jealous longing in the United States, since protests here tend to be a fraction of that size. But activists who work in countries that have recently liberalized abortion laws say these mobilizations have succeeded only in conjunction with painstaking behind-the-scenes work. For years, Latin American feminists have been waging a public campaign to “socially decriminalize” abortion while assembling the data and legal arguments to make their case.

In 2006, the Colombian court said it would allow abortion only in cases of rape, a risk to health, or serious fetal anomalies. So Colombian activists used these exceptions to crack open the door—pushing for less restrictive regulations, waging media campaigns, and accompanying women who were seeking abortion under the exceptions so they could advocate for them when they ran into barriers. Then, in February of this year, the court sided with feminist lawyers and decriminalized abortion up to 24 weeks. “The Colombian case was very, very technical,” Isabel Cristina Jaramillo Sierra, a lawyer and professor at Universidad de los Andes told me.

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