A FEW DAYS before the end of 2020, progressives in Latin America got some of the only good news the year had to offer: after decades of feminist activism, the Argentinian Senate legalized abortion. In a region known for its conservative politics, it was a rare triumph.
Argentina is now part of a small group of countries in the region where abortion is legal nationwide. Meanwhile, in the US, the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court has widely been seen as a step toward the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
The recent events in the Southern Cone open a door to a more fruitful analysis of politics in the region. Argentina’s success has brought hope to progressives throughout Latin America, and a closer look reveals lessons that other countries, including the US, can learn from.
How Change was Made
Before the vote in Argentina, abortion was only permitted under a 1921 law that allowed for exceptions in cases of rape or direct threats to the health of the mother. But even in such cases, local authorities often neglected petitions resulting in heartbreaking stories. One such case was that of an eleven-year-old girl whom lawyers refer to as “Lucia.” Lucia was sexually abused and impregnated by her grandmother’s boyfriend in 2018. In spite of expressing her clear desire to have an abortion, local authorities and medical personnel ignored the petition and ultimately forced her to give birth early last year.
Lucia’s case became a source of national outcry, and a reminder that many others like her had suffered under the existing regime. While it is impossible to know the exact number of women in these circumstances, the Argentinian government estimates that nearly 38,000 women were hospitalized each year after attempting to have an abortion in a clandestine center. Over 3,000 of them have died in the last three decades.
Now, Argentina has ensured that other girls will never have to experience what Lucia did. After the historic decision, abortion is not only legal but also free of charge to all citizens within, for now, the first fourteen weeks of pregnancy.
Nonetheless, the massive effort required in Argentina to overturn the status quo indicates that a domino effect in the region is unlikely. Legalizing abortion required not only support from a majority of senators, but the explicit backing of president Alberto Fernandez, as well as a decade-long activist movement that inspired an entire generation. While Argentina’s triumph has opened the door to discussing abortion laws in Latin America, it would be a mistake to claim that other countries—like Brazil and Mexico, the countries we call home—are bound to follow.
Brazil: A Change in the Left?
It is hard to overstate the conservatism of Brazilian society in comparison to that of the United States. About two thirds of Americans support gay marriage and recreational marijuana. In contrast, only around half of Brazilians support gay marriage, and just a quarter of them want to legalize cannabis for recreational use. This conservatism has a long history in Brazil: thanks to the Catholic Church’s opposition, divorce was only legalized in the country in 1977—four years after Roe v. Wade in the US.
This pattern is no different when it comes to abortion. According to a 2019 poll, 34% of Brazilians believe that abortion laws should stay the same—allowing abortions only in case of rape or risk to the mother’s life—and 41% think they should be even more stringent, forbidding abortion under any circumstances. In other words, 75% of the population opposes the pro-choice agenda.
In this environment, it is no surprise that mainstream politicians have tried to avoid the topic at all costs. Under the center-right administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) and the center-left administrations of the Workers’ Party (2003-2016), the public health system surreptitiously improved its handling of legal abortion cases. However, no president ever committed to expanding the permissibility of abortion itself. Under pressure from religious voters, then-presidential-candidate Dilma Rousseff from the Workers’ Party even signed a letter promising she would not touch abortion laws during her presidency.
But since the Workers’ Party lost power in 2016, the terms of the discussion have changed. On the one hand, religious conservatives have pushed legislation that threatens to ban all forms of abortion in the country—including those that have been legal since 1940. On the other hand, the mainstream left has advocated more openly for the pro-choice agenda, now that they will lose elections no matter what they say about abortion. In 2016, Lula—Brazil’s former president and most popular left-wing leader—listened to his party’s feminist base and delivered his most emphatic defense of reviewing the country’s abortion laws thus far.
Still, abortion will not be legalized in Brazil in the near future, and the Bolsonaro administration might even introduce more restrictions. The left can only work toward a long-term pro-choice campaign. With grassroots organizing and clever messaging, and without the fear of losing voters in an upcoming election—since they will lose anyway—Brazilian progressives could try bringing down opposition to legalizing abortion from 75% to, say, 55%. If that succeeds, a left-leaning presidential candidate ten years from now would no longer need to avoid the topic in order to survive politically—as has been the case for the past thirty years.
Mexico: Progressivism without Progressives
Talking about progressive politics in Mexico is a bit like taking a new car to an island without a gas station. Sure, you now have the power to go anywhere you want! But there is only so much you can do before running out of fuel.
In 2018, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador became not only the first left-wing Mexican president in decades, but also the only one whose party won majorities in both houses of the legislature. With this victory, one might have predicted a new wave of progressive reform that would broaden the nation’s political horizons. However, the fuel that the country bought with Lopez Obrador quickly ran out.
Mexican society is far more conservative than recent political developments might suggest. Almost 90% of citizens identified as Catholic in the last official census. And as one could expect, Catholic values permeate society with strong opposition to progressive ideas. In 2016, for instance, former President Enrique Peña Nieto tried to legalize same-sex marriage only to find that 53% of Mexicans were opposed to the idea. Needless to say, his attempts ultimately failed. And abortion is even more controversial.
A 2019 survey found that only 33% of Mexicans support legalizing abortion. Only two states have pro-choice majorities (Mexico City and Baja California). Support for legalization remained below 44% in all other 30 states, and in Zacatecas, it polled as low as 23%. As the situation stands, it is difficult to imagine abortion being legalized in the foreseeable future.
Right now, policies vary significantly between states. While abortion is permitted in all states in at least some circumstances, only Mexico City and Oaxaca allow procedures without restrictions.
After the legalization in Argentina, President Lopez Obrador mentioned the possibility of having a national plebiscite on legalizing abortion. But with interim elections this year, he is likely to punt any meaningful legislation into the future to avoid losing popular support.
Lopez Obrador has disappointed progressives before. While he made a career in left-wing politics, his 2018 presidential campaign was surprisingly out of touch with progressive values. His main proposals focused on eliminating corruption and reducing poverty, excluding social issues from the debate entirely. Since then, his administration has ignored all progressive goals of substance. While his tenure saw a significant increase in the federal minimum wage, social spending and beneficiaries of government programs have been lower than they were in the first years of former centrist president Enrique Peña Nieto.
But even if Mexico managed to get a real progressive in office, society would likely oppose any form of pro-choice legislation. In a nation that adamantly rejects social progress, the best hope for the next generation of progressives might be similar to that of their counterparts in Brazil: through grassroots mobilization and civic engagement. Only then might support for left-wing policy increase. Mexico should consider building some gas stations before buying its first car.
In Latin America, the biggest challenge for pro-choice advocates remains the barrier of public opinion. Some countries in the region, like Argentina and Chile, have greatly increased their support for legalization over the past twenty years; whereas others, like Brazil and Colombia, remain overwhelmingly opposed to it.
In any case, the situation in Latin America helps put the fight over Roe v. Wade into perspective. As of today, the majority of Americans support Roe—including a third of all Republicans, who identify as pro-choice. If reproductive rights are threatened in the US, it is not because society rejects them; it is because American institutions allow a disproportionate number of conservatives to remain in positions of power. In Latin America, legalizing abortion may be a matter of persuading the public; in the US, however, it may hinge on making the Senate and the Supreme Court more accountable to democracy.
Daniel Ferreira and Jose Luis Sabau
Image credit: Juan Diez/Wikimedia Commons