Beyond Choice: Abortion Rights in Latin America
By Cora Fernandez Anderson | June 30, 2022
While abortion rights are facing an imminent threat in the US, feminists in Latin America, a region historically known for conservative policies on reproductive rights, have recently won the legalization of abortion on demand in many countries. Abortion has been legalized in Uruguay in 2012, in Argentina in 2020, and in Colombia in 2022. Abortion is currently legal in Mexico City and eight out of 32 states. Chile has recently included the right to interrupt a pregnancy in the draft of their new constitution, awaiting to be ratified by popular vote this September. The success of abortion rights activists in Latin American is due, in part, to their adoption of a social justice and human rights framework that substantially differs from the restrictive frames of privacy and choice prevalent in the US. Defining abortion as a matter of social justice has led to a stronger commitment from Latin American governments to guarantee free access to abortion, something the US has not been able to achieve.
Defining abortion as a matter of social justice has led to a stronger commitment from Latin American governments to guarantee free access to abortion, something the US has not been able to achieve.
The Limits of Choice
The 1973 landmark Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade, legalized abortion based on the right to privacy. As Myra Marx Ferree explains, legalizing abortion as a right to privacy had dramatic consequences for access to abortion. The state grants you the freedom to decide whether to have an abortion but has no responsibility in guaranteeing this right.
The ruling was met with immediate conservative backlash, and organizations such as the National Right to Life Committee attempted in the 1970s and 80s to pass a constitutional amendment that would protect life from the moment of conception. In response, mainstream feminist groups such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood rallied to defend Roe. Based on public opinion studies, they settled on the frame of “choice” in an attempt to appeal to those Republicans and libertarians who wanted the state to stay out of their affairs. Their hope was to divide conservatives and increase support for legal abortion. Settling on the frame of “choice” reinforced the reliance on individual rights introduced by the Court, placing access to abortion closer to consumer rights, rather than human rights.
Abortion Advocacy in Latin America
By contrast, Latin American abortion rights activists chose frames rooted in social rights and community interests. Feminists in Latin America have alternately defined lack of access to abortion as a public health crisis, an issue of social justice, a debt of democracy and human rights, and as a case of violence against women.
Throughout Latin America, advocates have described the criminalization of abortion as a public health crisis. Unsafe abortions account for 10% of maternal mortality in the region. Throughout the region, approximately 757,000 women have complications from unsafe abortions every year. When conducted safely, abortion is one of the safest and simplest medical procedures, thanks to the manual vacuum aspirator and the abortion pill. Uruguay reached 0% of maternal mortality for abortion after legalization.
Activists have defined abortion as an issue of social justice. The criminalization of abortion does not stop abortions from happening, it just makes them riskier. Those who have the means to pay for an illegal but medically safe abortion do so, while those who do not will attempt to end unwanted pregnancies with measures that put their health and life at risk. Activists deliberately highlighted the inequity in access and health outcomes that derives from abortion criminalization, with those from low-income populations bearing a disproportionate health burden.
Activists have also linked the issue of abortion to the region’s struggles for democracy and human rights. Latin American countries suffered from political instability throughout the 20th century. In the 1960s and 70s, many Latin American countries were immersed in violent civil wars or governed by brutal military dictatorships. The 1980s and 90s witnessed a process of democratization that continues until today. Women had been at the forefront of the movements for democratization throughout the region. The return of democracy however, did not grant women the right to decide when to have children. Activists have defined legal abortion as a “debt of democracy,” highlighting the Chilean feminist demand for, “democracy in the country, the house and the bed.” According to feminists, the persistence of restrictive abortion policies meant women remained second class citizens.
In their fight for legal abortion, activists intentionally mobilized a human rights frame that resonated in the region. This was particularly clear in the case of Colombia. Activists chose a judicial strategy in which they explained criminalization as a violation of the human rights to life, health, integrity, dignity, equality, and non-discrimination. Many Latin American countries have incorporated international human rights treaties into their constitutions or have given them constitutional status. Courts have been receptive to human rights arguments and recognized the legal value of these treaties in their rulings.
Finally, abortion rights movements weaved their fight with the feminist fight against violence. The emergence of the Ni una menos (Not one women less) in 2015 in Argentina marked a turning point in the evolution of feminism in the region. The movement introduced a feminist perspective to understand gender-based violence and femicide. Ni una menos opened to door to other feminist issues, such as abortion. Activists were able to establish a relationship between both issues: unsafe abortion is another case of violence against women. These are preventable deaths, and the state is responsible for them.
Activists were able to establish a relationship between both issues: unsafe abortion is another case of violence against women. These are preventable deaths, and the state is responsible for them.
The use of frames rooted in social rights instead of individual rights have allowed Latin American movements to democratize abortion access. Unlike the US, all Latin American countries that have legalized abortion provide the procedure for free in their public hospitals and force private insurances to include the procedure within their basic health care plans. This is the case despite most Latin American countries having significantly fewer economic resources. In the US, while Roe gave citizens the right to have an abortion, it did not guarantee this right by providing financial support to those within lower income brackets that might be unable to pay for this procedure. The lack of a universal public health care system in the US and the emphasis on individual rights have prevented a discussion of abortion as a public health crisis or an issue of social justice, democracy, and class discrimination.
The lessons of Latin American feminists represent a path forward to root the abortion struggle in communal and social frames. Similar frames to those successful in Latin America have been employed by feminists of color in the US. In 1994, African American women developed the concept of “reproductive justice” to highlight the limitations of the frame of “choice.” Strengthening frames such as that of reproductive justice or new ones inspired by Latin American activists will provide a stronger foundation for expanding upon the framework of “choice,” a task that is long overdue. In the spirit of Latin American reforms, the abortion rights movement needs to demand the US government guarantee the right to abortion to all those in need of one.
Cora Fernandez Anderson is Assistant Professor of Comparative Politics at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of Fighting for abortion rights in Latin America: Social movements, state allies and institutions (2020).
Photo: Istock.com/Clara Murcia