La Lucha Sigue: Lessons From Latin America’s Abortion Victories
Abortion advocates reeling from the end of Roe v. Wade can look to Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina for perspective, strategy, and hope.
The abortion rights movement in the United States is in the fight of its life.
Although the leaked draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization gave advance notice that Roe v. Wade would be overturned, the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision was still a devastating blow. In the months since, the situation has only become more dire for people in need of abortion care. As of October 2022, abortion is banned or severely restricted in 15 states, with 11 additional states and territories threatening to restrict or eliminate access.
As a result, people needing abortions in the U.S. are looking everywhere to find health care—including across the border.
For more than 20 years, Mexican feminist group Las Libres has worked to end violence against women and expand access to sexual and reproductive health services in Mexico. In January, the group formed a cross-border network with activists in Texas, helping people obtain medication for self-managed abortion. Once Roe was overturned, the network expanded to build alliances in states where abortion is now banned or severely restricted.
“You have a big opportunity in the United States to push this as a collective right, not just an individual right of individual women,” says Verónica Cruz, co-founder of Las Libres, in Spanish. “This isn’t going to happen overnight; it could take 10 to 20 years. But however it ends up playing out, the movement in the U.S. right now is more alive than ever.”
Cruz is speaking from experience: Las Libres was pivotal in the struggle to legalize abortion in Mexico, beginning in 2000 when Guanajuato lawmakers passed a bill removing the only exception to the state’s anti-abortion law—pregnancies resulting from rape. Las Libres organized direct actions and public abortion storytelling for survivors, which was unheard of at the time.
“We were really pissed off, and we created a lot of social outcry and indignation, and we started to work to guarantee that women had access to this right,” says Cruz.
Decades of activism eventually paid off. In September 2021, Mexico’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that criminalizing abortion was unconstitutional, paving the way for abortion to be legalized nationwide.
Decades of activism eventually paid off. In September 2021, Mexico’s supreme court unanimously ruled that criminalizing abortion was unconstitutional, paving the way for abortion to be legalized nationwide.
This victory in Mexico came on the heels of a similar win in Argentina, which legalized abortion in January 2021. In February 2022, Colombia also legalized abortion up to 24 weeks’ gestation, one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world.
As the U.S. abortion rights movement regroups, one thing is clear: There’s much to learn from activism across Latin America.
While the sociopolitical conditions that fostered the movements in Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico aren’t identical to those in the United States, there are similarities.
According to Mayca Balaguer, an attorney in Córdoba, Argentina, U.S. activists face an uphill battle given the increasingly complicated hodgepodge of state abortion laws.
Balaguer sees how the Dobbs decision emboldened anti-abortion forces and created an exhausting atmosphere for those trying to protect abortion access—especially when state laws are so radically different. When providing abortion care is legal in one state and punishable by life in prison in another, activists on the ground face increasingly high stakes and can feel burnout quicker, Balaguer says.
“I think that when you get a legal outcome like this, the first thing is diagnosis,” the attorney says when asked about next steps for U.S. abortion advocates. “Study what happened and how you got there. Study everything that happened and try to understand why—all the factors. Try to have a map of the situation.”
After joining Argentina’s fight for abortion rights as a student in 2014, Balaguer then offered her legal expertise to the Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito, which launched in 2005 and became a major player in Argentina’s movement to legalize abortion.
That movement comprised activists, attorneys, health care providers, advocates, organizers, and everyday women, all funneling their energy toward making abortion legal. Week after week, month after month, year after year, they built a national movement, waving their signature green handkerchiefs up until the very moment in 2020 when the National Congress passed the Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy Law, which legalized abortion during the first 14 weeks of gestation.
By contrast, Colombian activists won abortion rights through the courts. In 2021, more than 100 individual activists and 92 organizations petitioned the constitutional court to address abortion—which the court did in February 2022, legalizing abortion through the second trimester.
It was a striking development in a conservative and overwhelmingly Catholic country. Abortion in Colombia was banned completely until 2006, when an initial constitutional court ruling decriminalized abortion if the life or health of the pregnant person was at risk, in cases of severe fetal abnormality, or if the pregnancy was the result of rape. That ruling was prompted by activists in what would become the Causa Justa movement, comprising more than 100 groups fighting for abortion rights.
One of those groups was Women’s Link Worldwide, which strategized to use the power of law not just to win a case but to “actually achieve sustainable social change,” says Mariana Ardila, the organization’s former managing attorney. Litigation can be its own advocacy tool, providing an opportunity to organize, gain allies and partnerships, produce educational materials, plan public events, and strategize.
“There are many decisions on paper that do not actually transform the reality of women and girls and pregnant people,” says Ardila. It’s crucial to build a broad movement, she adds—so that when a good legal decision comes down, the sociocultural seeds for implementing the law have already been planted. And if the ruling goes the other way, advocates have still gained a stronger, more unified movement and begun to tear through disinformation. This is especially important when the subject is abortion, which is still steeped in misinformation and stigma.
Ardila says flipping the script on common anti-abortion talking points was an important facet of the Causa Justa movement, leading some politicians to publicly support abortion for the first time. A key element of the 2021 Colombian lawsuit focused on “liberty of conscience.” A version of this argument has long been used against abortion access, permitting the denial of this health care based on religious grounds.
“But we sort of [flipped] the argument and said, ‘OK, this criminal regulation of abortion is actually imposing decisions on people’s conscience that [they] may not agree [with], so you are impeding people from actually making decisions according to their individual conscience,’” says Ardila. “This was actually one of the arguments that the court accepted. For the first time, liberty of conscience was used to protect access to abortion and abortion rights and not to oppose them.”
According to attorneys and activists in Colombia, Mexico, and Argentina, securing the right to abortion was the result of a multipronged approach: grassroots organizing, strategic litigation, and most importantly, changing the narrative.
In Colombia, Ardila calls it the “social decriminalization” of abortion: eliminating stigma around abortion and thus changing how people think, talk, and feel about this form of health care.
“If you only fix the law through a lawsuit or through a bill—and people still think that [abortion] shouldn’t be happening—it’s very possible that a decision won’t be implemented or that it will be overturned, [like what] happened in the United States,” Ardila says. “We said very clearly: This is not about if abortion is good or bad, if you agree or not, or if you want an abortion or not. It’s about how to regulate abortion. Do we want to regulate it through criminal laws, which are ineffective to prevent abortion [and] which put vulnerable women in danger? Or do we want to try other means to regulate abortion, like health care laws and social policies?”
The abortion rights movement has to set the terms of the debate, echoes feminist attorney Sabrina Cartabia Groba, who fought to secure abortion rights in Argentina. Cartabia Groba says the most effective messaging rejected the language of death: the death of “unborn babies” or of women from unsafe illegal abortions.
“Why is it that ‘abortion’ is a word related to death and not to life?” Cartabia Groba asks. “We will always have this kind of taboo surrounding abortion, because death is the taboo surrounding it. We need to change narratives to start talking about why women perform abortions. What are the meanings of those abortions in [the lives of] these women? It’s opportunities. It’s choice. It’s freedom.”
Balaguer prefers to lean into the health care angle. Women do die from unsafe abortions. And it’s important to make it clear that “women dying is more tragic than babies not being born,” she says.
“If you want to focus on the woman deciding, that’s not nice,” Balaguer explains. “No one wants a free woman. It doesn’t sell.”
Cruz, of Mexico’s Las Libres, agrees that shifting narratives is critical to expanding abortion access. She calls these efforts “the work of ants”: little by little, people start to understand that abortion is natural, safe, and has always existed.
“It is not safe when it’s stigmatized and when it’s made illegal,” Cruz says. “In the United States … there’s a lot of work to be done to really change the narrative and to bring about that whole cultural shift to where abortion is seen as an essential part of life and something that just happens.”
Balaguer saw this cultural shift happen in Argentina, as people began to recognize abortion as a normal part of health care.
“To be able to speak about it and to change the stigma and what people knew about it was crucial,” Balaguer says. “What happened in 2018 is that everybody started talking about this in their homes, in school, and in the institutions.”
The Struggle Continues
Yet setbacks in global abortion rights movements are not constrained by national borders. International anti-abortion groups are already trying to weaponize the catastrophic Dobbs decision. For groups like Las Libres, it’s a reminder that protecting abortion rights means constantly having to defend them.
Mexico’s supreme court decriminalized abortion in September 2021, the same week Texas enacted SB 8, then the most restrictive abortion law in the U.S. It banned abortion after detecting electrical activity in the embryo, which is roughly six weeks of gestation, before many people even know they’re pregnant. The legislation also allowed anyone—regardless of whether they lived in Texas or had any association with a patient—to sue an abortion provider who violated the six-week ban or anyone who helped a patient obtain an abortion after six weeks.
These developments are linked, which is why Cruz says her goal moving forward is to “work for universal access to abortion for all people, everywhere.”
Defending abortion access requires personal assessments of the amount of risk each individual is willing to take on, Cruz explains. Las Libres made a conscious decision to provide access to medical abortion, in defiance of the law and despite criticism from other feminist groups. To this day, Cruz says she doesn’t believe the work Las Libres did was illegal—because abortion access is protected under international human rights law.
Cruz encourages U.S. abortion activists to not romanticize the movement. Las Libres had to learn that everyone wasn’t in the fight together, and that not every group had the same goals. Despite setbacks, threats, and moments of hopelessness, Cruz stands by all of Las Libres’ choices. Many of the Mexican supreme court’s justifications for decriminalizing abortion were the same that her group had been chanting for decades.
It’s an instructive lesson for the U.S. as abortion advocates navigate life without Roe. “The fight, the struggle continues,” Cruz says. “In the U.S. right now, you have a great responsibility to help women.”