Latin America has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. Abortion is illegal under any circumstance in six countries: the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Suriname. In the majority of Latin America, getting an abortion is considered a criminal offense. However, Argentina’s recent vote in the Lower House to legalize the procedure seeks to change that, and is inspiring mobilization across the region.
Prohibition of abortion doesn’t stop women from seeking ways to terminate their pregnancies; according to a 2012 report by the World Health Organization, Latin America has the highest unsafe abortion rate of any region across the globe. The report states that 97 percent of women of reproductive age in Latin America and the Caribbean live in countries with restrictive abortion laws. However, if Argentina’s abortion legislation is passed into law (which would only happen with Senate approval and Macri’s subsequent signature), this figure would be reduced to 90 percent of women. But women’s groups across the region are beginning to say that “that’s still too many.”
Most notably, movements in Chile, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Paraguay, Costa Rica, and Brazil are gaining momentum following this period of heightened visibility for women’s issues. Green pañuelos have multiplied and disseminated, and other groups are adopting their own colored scarves to represent their national version of what is becoming an international pro-choice campaign.
After almost 30 years of total prohibition, Chile legalized abortion in August of 2017 in three cases: pregnancies as a result of sexual assault, inviable fetuses, and cases where the woman’s life is in danger. This indicates regulations remain regarding when and why a woman can decide to terminate her pregnancy. Just days after the Lower House passed the bill in Argentina, a pro-choice social media campaign took over Chile, with a march already on the books for June 25. Activists in Chile cite success in Argentina as their inspiration to begin a movement to decriminalize abortion. The design of the scarf is based on the pañuelos verdes that have became emblematic of pro-choicers here at home.
The burgundy color of their pañuelo is a mix between red, which represents women who have died from clandestine abortions, and purple, which represents the feminist cause more broadly.
In April of 2007, Mexico City approved a law to decriminalize abortion up to 12 weeks gestation. However, each Mexican state decides its own abortion laws, and women who live in any of the other 32 states have more difficulty accessing care. On June 9, Mexican women activists turned in their green scarves for white and began their own movement, the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion, which seeks to assure women across the country have equal access to abortion services.
Sandra Torres, an activist for the campaign reminds us at The Bubble that although the Argentine bill helped to give new life to their movement, it has existed for more than ten years since the grassroots campaign in Mexico City began. Its founders were “the pioneers of the different campaigns that exist today,” she tells us.
Abortion is currently legal in Venezuela only in cases where there is a threat to the health of the mother. Both women who receive abortions and doctors who perform them risk being sent to prison. Tomorrow, there will be a town hall in Caracas to discuss the legalization of abortion, which pro-choice activists are characterizing as part of the wave of feminist political action that began in Argentina.
Abortion is illegal in Peru, except to avoid serious risk to a woman’s physical or mental health. In the days following the vote in Argentina, a pro-choice campaign also began to surface in Peru, but with salmon scarves in place of green.
The movement in Peru is an extension of a broader international shift with inspiration from the recent events in Argentina, made clear from the image circulating on Aborto Legal Perú’s social media pages with the phrase, “Today Argentina, tomorrow Perú.” Activist Ximena Ramírez tells us that the group is adopting language directly from the Argentine campaign.
— Aborto Legal Perú (@abortolegalperu) June 18, 2018
Abortion in Ecuador is legal only in order to save the life of a woman or is the pregnancy is the result of sexual assault of a mentally disabled woman. Women who choose to terminate their pregnancies and doctors who carry out the procedure are subject to up to five years in prison.
The National Coalition of Ecuadorian Women released a statement following Argentina’s Lower House decision last Thursday which stated: “We recognize the Argentinian women and organizers that have pushed forward the campaign for the right to legal, safe, and free abortion. Your campaign has been inspiring in our country. […] Legalizing abortion is a pending debt for democracy that we have in our country. It’s happening in Argentina, in Ecuador, in all of Latin America.”
“Today, your green scarf shelters us and inspires everyone in the region. Congratulations from Ecuador for the important step that our Argentine sisters have taken for access to #AbortoLegalYa, safe and free @CampAbortoLegal @CampaaAbortoLeg,” wrote the Ecuadorian Defense Front DS-DR.
A recurring theme throughout the language used in these budding feminist movements is that of sisterhood. Although individual countries are jumping onboard every day, their presence on social media is filled with inclusive hashtags like #UnGritoGlobalPorAbortoLegal and the catchphrase of “Latin America is going to all be feminist,” as is brandished in the image above.
To be clear, Argentina didn’t invent feminism. Women’s grassroots movements have existed for decades across Latin America have been simply been emboldened and energized since Argentina’s pro-choice legislation passed in the Lower House. As the country watches this historical bill pass through Congress, the rest of the world is also watching. Activists are taking notes and learning how to shape a movement—through pointed messaging and bold symbolism—that can effect real change.