Why a growing number of Latin American countries are legalizing abortion

As Americans contemplate living in a country where Roe versus Wade is overturned, a very different story is playing out in many parts of Latin America. In recent years, countries throughout the region have relaxed abortion restrictions. Alicia Yamin, senior fellow for the Global Health and Rights Project at Harvard Law School, joins Ali Rogin to discuss what's changed and why.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    As Americans contemplate living in a country where Roe versus Wade is overturned, a very different story is playing out in many parts across Latin America. In recent years, countries throughout the region have relaxed abortion restrictions. Correspondent Ali Rogin explores what's changed and why.

  • Ali Rogin:

    In just the last three years, abortion rights activists in Latin America have celebrated some major victories. Their movement is called the Marea Verde, the green wave for the green scarves first worn by activists in Argentina. In 2020, that country legalized abortion until 14 weeks of pregnancy. It was previously treated as a crime except in cases of rape, and to protect the life of the mother.

    In Mexico, some abortion rights demonstrations grew violent. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that state laws criminalizing abortions were unconstitutional. Now, seven of Mexico's 32 states allow them. In February of this year, Colombia's Constitutional Court legalized abortion up to 24 weeks, there had been a total ban until 2006, when some exceptions were added. But other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean still have some of the most severe abortion laws. The procedure is still completely illegal with no exceptions in six countries.

    For more, I'm joined by Alicia Yamin, the Senior Fellow for Global Health and Rights at Harvard Law School. Alicia, thank you so much for joining me. Of course, Latin America is not a monolith. But what are some of the broader trends that you've identified that have popped out to you in recent years?

  • Alicia Yamin, Harvard Law School:

    Well, first of all, Ali, thank you very much for having me. As you rightly pointed out, the region is not a monolith, and still has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world and El Salvador and Nicaragua, for example. But the incredible progress that has been made in the last few years, which is really a product of a very much longer struggle by feminist movements in the in the region, I think is for not just legal entitlements, but also has really emphasized social decriminalization of abortion and has centered reproductive justice as a matter of democratic governance.

  • Ali Rogin:

    And let's talk about those feminist activists. What are some of the defining characteristics of the Green Wave Movement?

  • Alicia Yamin:

    The feminist movements in Latin America had expanded to include LGBTQ plus movements, to include labor movements, to include a broader swath of society. Some of that has been in response to very high levels of violence against women, and including femicide in the region. But some of it has its roots in deep struggles for a secular state as part of democracy and female representation and politics and more grassroots based struggle for abortion, frankly, than we have had in this country.

  • Ali Rogin:

    And do you think some of those lessons of what worked in some of these countries in Latin America couldn't be applied to the debate that's taking place in the United States right now? And that some of the messaging that worked for abortion rights activists in Latin America, do you think that could be applied for abortion rights activists here in the United States?

  • Alicia Yamin:

    I think it could be. We have to be careful because they were drawing on it. They are drawing on a different universe of legal norms. It's not been generally framed as a right to privacy in Latin America. Of course, dignity and women's and pregnancy capable people's self-determination and dignity is important. But it's also a matter of equality of gender equality and democratic inclusion and of the right to health, which of course, we don't have a right to health care in the United States.

    Politically, I would say that although these are countries with deep polarization and exclusion in politics, abortion has, and there are differences among them. But abortion for example, in Argentina is something that is not associated with one political party so strongly. It's a cleavage that is cuts across different major political parties and coalitions.

  • Ali Rogin:

    How would you contrast, the way the abortion debate is framed in the United States, with that of Latin America?

  • Alicia Yamin:

    Here, we focused on reproductive autonomy. And that, of course, is absolutely essential. But abortion is never really a private decision. It's always a matter of many factors that play into the web of relationships in women's lives. And what the reproductive justice movement coming out of black women's feminism in this country showed was that there was a huge difference between the legal entitlements and actual access.

    In Latin America, the social movements and feminists have really targeted access, not just legal entitlement, they've progressively moved toward complete change in legal frameworks. But they've really worked long and hard to reach out to health providers, to again socially decriminalize abortion so that it's not such a stigmatized and private issue. It's a social justice and a reproductive justice issue, not just an individual issue.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Alicia Yamin of Harvard University, thank you so much for your time.

  • Alicia Yamin:

    Thank you.

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