“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 abortionup 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.
It was massive street demonstrations in 2015 in Argentina that launched the “Green Wave” movement for abortion rights that spread across Latin America and around the world. Even there, though, much of the work happened across kitchen tables, in taxis, and in televised legislative hearings, according to Alicia Yamin, a lecturer on law and senior fellow on global health at Harvard Law School. A key turning point came in 2018 when Argentina’s congress came close to passing a bill to decriminalize abortion. The bill failed, but the debate inspired people to talk about abortion in their homes and in the streets.
“Feminists were doing this arduous stuff in the shadows, behind the scenes, and slowly, iteratively brought in the broader population to realize what’s at stake,” Yamin said.
In Mexico, too, street protests were accompanied by brazen distribution of abortion pills in defiance of the law by groups like the one Verónica Cruz runs, Las Libres. Then there was the quieter work of accompanying rape victims through traumatic encounters in public hospitals. Young women like Patricia, whose story Laura Gottesdiener and I told for The Nation in 2019, became unwitting activists who forced Mexican hospitals to perform abortions required under the country’s rape exception. Often, these confrontational encounters with anti-abortion doctors and health officials were physically painful and emotionally scarring.
“It was these women, these girls, who came forward and said, ‘Yes, I’m going to do it,’” Verónica Marín, an activist in Jalisco told us. “We accompanied them, but it was their bodies that endured that torment.”
As the United States faces a future that more closely resembles what these countries are leaving behind, the lesson for US activists is more complex than just that street protests work. One-on-one conversations, the development of compelling legal arguments, and the accompaniment of people seeking abortion are all key parts of a winning strategy.
If abortion rights activists in Latin America can learn anything from the US example, meanwhile, it may be that progress on abortion access cannot be assumed—especially when it relies on the courts.
“Activists in Latin America are very fearful of backlash,” Jaramillo Sierra told me.
One theory for why Roe v. Wade is in peril today is that the Supreme Court moved too fast in the 1970s, legalizing abortion before the public was ready. But what’s most chilling about the current backward slide of abortion rights is just how out of step it is with public support for legal abortion. Sixty-five percent of Americans oppose overturning Roe, according to a poll from Fox News.
Which is why our current predicament must be understood within the context of minority rule—the reality that anti-choice Republicans exercise political power far in excess of their representation across the country. As Max Fisher wrote for The New York Times last year, the United States is a radical outlier; more than 30 countries have expanded access to abortion since 2000, while only a few have rolled it back. What accounts for our exceptionalism?
“The only two developed countries to roll back abortion rights, the United States and Poland, share a revealingly similar trajectory,” Fisher wrote. “In both, high courts rolled back abortion rights that were favored by national majorities. And both rulings were preceded by the rise of populist leaders who widened social divisions and promised to smash or co-opt independent institutions.”
This link between abortion rights and democracy is one that feminists in Latin American countries with a history of brutal military dictatorships (often backed by the United States) have understood for a long time.
“That movement of framing the conquest of reproductive autonomy and reproductive justice as part of a construction of broader, deeper democracy goes way back,” Yamin said. Feminists in Latin America’s southern cone in the years after the fall of military dictatorships there made an explicit demand to end “dictatorship” not only in the public sphere but in private spaces like the home as well, Yamin said.
Meanwhile, in the United States, a party that lost the national popular vote in all but one of the last eight presidential elections has managed to appoint six of our nine Supreme Court justices before moving to cement its power by stopping people of color from voting in states like Texas—the same states that have passed the most draconian of anti-abortion laws. Perhaps this last lesson about democracy is the most important we can learn from our Latin American counterparts.