How Latin American Feminists Won Abortion Rights
Many argue abortion is not just an issue of individual choice but also of social justice.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: How Latin American feminists secured a string of abortion rights victories, an early look at key provisions in Chile’s new draft constitution, and a portrait of São Paulo’s Bolivian immigrant royalty.
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Where Feminism Is Gaining Ground
After Texas enacted the United States’ most severe abortion restrictions last September, Mexican abortion rights activists hatched a plan to help women across the border. They were also motivated by concerns that the U.S. Supreme Court might soon overturn the landmark abortion rights decision Roe v. Wade, which now appears likely after a draft majority opinion leaked from the court this week.
As the New York Times reported in December 2021, the Mexican feminist collective Las Libres has long helped women seeking abortions in their own country by sending them abortion-inducing pills and coaching them over the phone or in person about how to administer them. In January, they began concerted efforts to send the pills to Texas and other locations across the United States, according to someone involved in the project who spoke to Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity.
In the last two years, Latin American advocates have worked to notch significant victories on abortion rights in their countries just as U.S. authorities have stripped them away. Argentina’s Congress legalized abortion in December 2020, Mexico’s Supreme Court voted to decriminalize abortion in September 2021, and Colombia’s Constitutional Court followed suit in February of this year. In Mexico, individual states must also rule on abortion for it to be effectively legalized, but the top court’s ruling sets binding precedent.
Political observers in all three of those countries credit the developments to street mobilizations by abortion rights activists, which are known as the “green tide” for the green handkerchiefs demonstrators often wear. But participants say that’s only part of their success. Off the streets, “Latin American feminists have constant spaces of dialogue and exchange with each other” both within and beyond their countries, said Colombian lawyer Mariana Ardila of the women’s rights organization Women’s Link Worldwide.
Many of the Las Libres activists as well as members of similar collectives in Argentina and Chile view their work on abortion not as a stand-alone issue but as just one direct-action component of broader feminist mobilization, according to a survey of 457 activists co-administered by four such groups and published Thursday. The larger feminist ecosystem in Latin America has brought together figures as diverse as legal scholars, doctors, and even some Christian groups and center-right politicians in recent years.
In Argentina, feminism “has become a mass movement” since large-scale protests against femicide began in 2015, said journalist Estefanía Pozzo. Its intellectual foundations, however, have been laid over decades through wide-ranging and inclusive grassroots organizing. From that base, Pozzo said, arguments emerged that “abortion is an economic issue and a class issue” as well as one of access to health care and autonomy.
Claims that legalizing abortion would not only promote privacy and individual choice (Roe’s linchpin) but also improve access to health care and decrease social inequalities have been key in victorious lawsuits in Latin America, said Ardila, the Colombian lawyer. “Here in the global south, we’ve had emblematic, bold arguments succeed in court that can be an example to the rest of the world.”
Argentine activists emphasized the messaging around health equity to win over even center-right politicians, who were crucial to their efforts to legalize abortion in Congress. Argentina’s broader feminist movement switched up tactics at times, staging society-wide strikes to protest gender-based violence or waging campaigns on social media and through mainstream media appearances to change public opinion.
“The fight doesn’t always have to be aggressive. It has to choose the right tactics,” Pozzo said.
When Colombian activists faced pushback from the religious right, they took their cue from the Argentines: They just kept going, “building leverage through political institutions”—like court decisions—“and public opinion,” international relations professor Ana María Arango of Colombia’s Externado University told Foreign Policy.
Despite these successes, though, abortion access remains hard to come by in much of the region. Some countries in Central America ban abortion under all circumstances, and Brazil still bans it in most cases. Activists in countries where abortion is newly legalized stress that some conservative doctors still object to carrying out the procedure. Still, the recent victories in Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia are significant—not least because their deep entwinement with the larger feminist movement has brought about other social changes as well.
In Chile, where a legislative effort at decriminalizing abortion was narrowly voted down in November 2021, mass feminist mobilizations in the previous two years successfully pushed for half of the country’s constitutional assembly to be composed of women and led to a presidential cabinet that is majority female. Argentina’s Congress is currently considering expansions to maternity and paternity leave, a key feminist demand.
And in Colombia, March congressional elections yielded the most women lawmakers in the country’s history. Three presidential candidates have also chosen Afro-Colombian women as their running mates, El Tiempo reported. One of the women, environmental lawyer Francia Márquez, first ran in a primary as a presidential candidate and garnered more votes than some well-known white, male political insiders.
Externado University international relations professor Magda Catalina Jiménez credits the popularity of Márquez and other Black women candidates to “an enormous participation of women activists over the years,” and especially to the cultivation of both an “intergenerational and intersectional feminism” in Colombia.
That feminist movement still faces plenty of hurdles, she added. But it could serve as an inspiration for activists elsewhere, including in the United States.
“Feminist movements are transnational,” she said.
Monday, May 9: Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wraps up a trip to Central American countries and Cuba by meeting with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel.
Sunday, May 8: New Costa Rican President Rodrigo Chaves is inaugurated.
Monday, May 16: The first draft of Chile’s new constitution becomes ready for internal revision.
What We’re Following
The real cost of a burger. Brazilian beef giant JBS has claimed that it prioritizes the environment and pledged to avoid buying cattle that graze on illegally deforested land. But a Washington Post investigation found that some of the company’s factories with export authorization to the United States made cattle purchases between January 2018 and October 2020 from ranchers “who at the time owned at least one property cited for illegal deforestation.”
JBS “has yet to disentangle itself from ties to illegal deforestation,” write Terrence McCoy and Júlia Ledur, the report’s authors. Several major U.S. grocery store chains sell the company’s products. In a statement to the Washington Post, JBS officials cited the complexity of the cattle supply chain and said they plan to phase out all deforested products from the company’s supply chain by 2025.
Brazilian farmers have a system to track the history of cattle sales that could flag such ties in a straightforward way. They currently use it to track cows’ vaccination histories. But Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration has shunned the possibility of employing the system for environmental surveillance purposes, even taking cattle-tracking documents down from the agriculture ministry’s website, the Washington Post reported. Under Bolsonaro, deforestation in Brazil reached a 15-year high, and cattle exports have soared.
Caracas-Tehran links. Iran’s oil minister met with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, this week, where they discussed how to overcome the economic challenges posed by U.S. sanctions on both of their countries. The meeting came after U.S. officials also visited with the Venezuelan leader in March, prompting speculation that a deal could be in the works to bring Venezuelan oil flowing back to U.S. refineries. Since then, no such agreement has been announced.
Immigrant royalty. Last month, Brazilian reporter Felipe Maia covered the 6,000-person quinceañera—or coming-of-age party—of Litzi Rivera, the daughter of two Bolivian textile magnates in São Paulo. The event showcased the social ascension of Bolivian immigrants in the city, where many work in sweatshops.
It was an “ecumenical Latin American event,” Maia writes, with cumbia bands from Argentina and Peru. One dancer donned a costume that mixed Brazilian funk style with a skull mask and a Mexican sombrero.
While quinceañeras are more common in Spanish-speaking Latin American countries than in Portuguese-speaking Brazil, immigrant pathways have help them spread. Maia writes that the party backed up traffic in all directions.
Question of the Week
On Wednesday, the Pan American Health Organization reported that COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Central American and the Caribbean, which experienced a week-on-week growth in new cases of 53.4 percent and 15.4 percent, respectively.
In the wider region of Latin America and the Caribbean, what percent of people have now had at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine as of April 20?
As of April 20, more than two-thirds of people in the region have received at least two vaccine doses. Still, some countries have yet to vaccinate even half of their populations, the Pan American Health Organization said.
In Focus: Chile Readies Its Constitution
Chile’s constitutional assembly has less than two months to go before it presents a draft constitution to the public. After it does so on July 5, a simple majority of voters will then have to approve the text in a Sept. 4 plebiscite for it to be officially adopted.
After months of debate, the assembly approved several key articles in the last few weeks. Notably, these include provisions setting out positive social rights, such as the right to health, education, and dignified housing.
On Wednesday night, the assembly approved an article that was a key demand of Indigenous members: establishing legal protections for Indigenous land and resources as well as providing reparations to Indigenous communities. Further details on what these may entail were not immediately included.
The draft constitution already contains more than 300 articles, far beyond the current constitution’s 149, journalist Francisca Skoknic reported. Although the draft is not yet final, misinformation about its content has already been circulating in Chilean WhatsApp groups, journalist Daniel Matamala writes in La Tercera.
Polling over the first several months of the drafting period suggested Chileans would approve the new constitution. But those numbers have flipped in recent weeks.
Chilean President Gabriel Boric, who has said that the fate of the constitution is closely tied to the fate of his presidency, stated this week that if the new legal code is rejected in September, he might consider alternative methods of modifying the constitution rather than letting the effort die completely. Some members of leftist parties criticized his comments as potentially weakening the approval campaign; Boric then walked them back.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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