How feminists are organizing for abortion rights in Latin America
Jair Bolsonaro’s election as Brazil’s president at the end of October, and the threat of far right extremism it represents, comes on the heels of a reinvigorated fight for abortion rights all across Latin America. In Brazil, a left-wing political party filed a motion to decriminalize abortion altogether in 2017. This August, a bill to legalize abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy was approved by the Argentine Chamber of Deputies, but ultimately rejected by a later vote of 38 to 31. The bill followed earlier activist efforts, including the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion in 2005, and the Ni Una Menos movement in 2015. The most recent vote inspired more than a million activists to occupy Argentinian streets in support of a movement which is now known as the “green wave.”
These movements, however, are receiving pushback — not only in the form of the election of a conservative president, but also from religious fundamentalists and the organized extreme right. As Flor Pagola, a Uruguayan feminist activist and journalist, told The FBomb, “Pro-choice networks are increasingly under attack [due to] a rise in extreme right hate and violence. There is a rise in hate online and a rise in insecurity that pro-abortion activists have to endure.”
This pushback is unsurprising considering that abortion law reform has been disproportionately slow in Latin America compared to other global regions. While abortion laws were widely modified between the 1960s and 1980s in Western Europe and North America, abortion is still legally prohibited or allowed only in certain circumstances in most Latin American countries. In fact, abortion is legal only in Cuba, French Guiana, Guyana, Uruguay, and Mexico City. The law allowing abortion on demand during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy was passed in Uruguay just six years ago, and approximately 90,000 legal abortions have been performed in Mexico City since the right became available in 2007. Abortion in the rest of Mexico, however, is still restricted; each state in the country makes its own laws. In the rest of Latin America, abortion is legal only in cases of medical necessity or “therapeutic abortion,” in which abortion is performed in the case of a rape. For example, Venezuela’s penal code prohibits abortion except in cases where the woman’s life is at risk, and in Ecuador, the 1971 penal code still prohibits abortion except in the case of a threat to the life or health of a pregnant woman, or in the case of rape or mental incapacity. In both countries, the penalties for both procuring and carrying out an abortion are grave — with up to three to five years in prison. In El Salvador, the country in the region with the most strict anti-abortion laws, a woman who was raped by her stepfather is facing up to 20 years in prison for attempted murder for giving birth in a toilet.
Despite these stringent laws, many Latin American women have found, and still find, ways to terminate their pregnancies, often risking their lives to do so. In fact, at least 10 percent of all maternal mortality in the region is due to unsafe abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Yet activists are still working hard in the region and have accomplished a lot. Flor Pagola, a journalist who has covered the abortion rights campaign in Latin America, told the FBomb that regional convenings are held and function as key spaces to exchange knowledge among activists and providers in the space. Abortion rights activists also meet regularly in their own circles to exchange experiences, strategies, and knowledge. Right now the Network for Reproductive Health, a regional organization leading the fight for abortion rights, is hosting an intergenerational dialogue on abortion with young feminist activists and older feminist activists strategizing and convening. FRIDA the Young Feminist Fund and other organizations are part of this dialogue taking place in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Activists are also using various communication channels as a means to share knowledge and experiences in movement building among abortion rights activists from all over the world. One such tool is Virada Feminista, a 24-hour online live streamed event in Brazil. Founded by two young Brazilian feminists, Jessica Ipolito and Thais Campolino, this digital platform highlights issues surrounding sexual and reproductive rights. Another tool is Beta, a Facebook platform with over 10,000 likes launched to inform grassroots organizations in Brazil around reproductive rights policy and legislation.
These tools have provided safe spaces for feminist reproductive rights movements to grow, thrive, and solidify networks. What’s more, this wave of activism in Latin America is giving many feminist movements in other countries hope that change might be just around the corner, even if achieving it feels like a slow uphill climb. The landscape of abortion rights may look incredibly challenging, risky, and long, but young feminists are organized, prepared, and everywhere.
Ngozi is one of the four fellows who were selected as part of the Young Feminist Media Fellowship between FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund and The Fbomb. A pilot project launched this year, the fellowship is an attempt to counter dominant narratives that provide little to no space to achievements and accomplishments of young feminist organizers, giving an opportunity to young feminist storytellers to tell the story themselves of young feminist trends around them.
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