What the United States can learn from abortion rights prevails in Latin America


Protesters wave a green scarf outside Argentina’s Congress in Buenos Aires in December 2020, where lawmakers have begun debating a bill to legalize abortion.

Emiliano Lasalvia/AFP via Getty Images


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Protesters wave a green scarf outside Argentina’s Congress in Buenos Aires in December 2020, where lawmakers have begun debating a bill to legalize abortion.

Emiliano Lasalvia/AFP via Getty Images

Protests for reproductive rights in Latin America have been awash with tens of thousands of bright green handkerchiefs in recent years.

They represent the green wave, a mass movement to expand rights in the region that has already proven its effectiveness. Over the past two years, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia have decriminalized or completely legalized abortion. Other neighboring countries like Chile could be next.

Now that federal abortion protections in the United States are gone, reproductive rights advocates in the United States could look to their counterparts in Latin America for inspiration and strategy.

Maria Antonieta Alcalde is the Director of APIs in Central America and Mexico, an organization that promotes access to safe and legal abortion around the world. She joined All things Considered share perspectives from his own work and provide insight into what the movement in the United States could do next.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On what is currently working in the Latin American reproductive rights movement

One of the things that has been crucial in advancing abortion rights in Latin America has been the green wave. The green wave is this movement which is very popular. It is a movement in which many young people participate. And I think what had to happen in Latin America, because of the legal restrictions, was that we, as a movement, had to explore all avenues to target and promote access to safe abortion, even in the legal limits, but also mobilize ourselves. We therefore mobilized through large organizations, national and regional organizations.


Activists wave green handkerchiefs outside the National Congress building as senators vote for the new abortion law on August 8, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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Activists wave green handkerchiefs outside the National Congress building as senators vote for the new abortion law on August 8, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images

The green movement is a very inclusive movement because you don’t have to be part of a political party, you don’t have to be part of a specific organization, you don’t have to donate. All you have to do is be there, wear your green scarf and help women access information about safe and legal abortion.

On the question of whether greater access to abortion has translated into an increase in the number of abortions

In the case of Mexico and in most Latin American countries, things are different from the United States because we have a public health system. In Mexico City, women can access free abortions because the government has an obligation to provide health care to everyone.

What we have learned is that decriminalizing abortion has actually reduced the need for women to have access to it, because when you legalize abortion, you can provide comprehensive services to women.

So if you come to Mexico to a public health clinic, the women not only receive a very good service to terminate the pregnancy, but they also receive, for example, advice in case they are faced with a situation of violence. They can therefore have access to other services to escape these situations. Contraceptives are also offered to them free of charge. Thus, most women who come to a clinic for an abortion leave this clinic not only with the abortion, but also with contraceptives. Most of the time, it is a long-acting contraceptive like an implant.

If their partners accompany them, they even offer vasectomies to their partners. So when you are able to provide legal abortion in the public health system, you meet the needs of the most vulnerable people. They are the ones who go to the public health system and you are able to offer comprehensive services that will prevent them from returning once or twice with an unwanted pregnancy.

Where the Abortion Rights Movement Failed in the United States

It’s a very good time to rethink ourselves, because I also feel part of the movement in the United States

I think maybe the first part is that the American movement is very isolated. If you think about the abortion movement or the sexual reproductive rights movement around the world, we are very united. The green wave is an expression that is not the Argentinian movement or the Colombian or Chilean movement, we are all together. And we learn from each other.


Pro-choice activists dressed as characters from the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale display green scarves outside the residence of the US Ambassador in Buenos Aires, June 30, 2022.

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Pro-choice activists dressed as characters from the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale display green scarves outside the residence of the US Ambassador in Buenos Aires, June 30, 2022.

Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images

Maybe the other thing is that this is a movement that has some of the strength in large organizations. I’m talking about Planned Parenthood or the Center for Reproductive rights. [Because then] it’s not about access to abortion, it’s about Planned Parenthood. If someone disagrees with you as an organization even a bit, there’s not much room to go into another space or to be part of the movement.

I think that has hampered the organization because there are other avenues, other expressions of the movement, including expressions of the Latino movement, including expressions of the Afro-American movement, that have not been strong in this morality of large organizations.

And maybe the third is that the model in the United States is very clinical. You access an abortion service in a clinic with all that is necessary in terms of infrastructure, in terms of medical equipment and personnel, whereas elsewhere in the world the access route to abortion self-directed and abortion was stronger. More and more women are self-managing their abortions and you don’t need a clinic for that.

If she has hope for the abortion rights movement in the United States

I think these are founding moments, or re-founding moments for the United States

I think it’s time for the movement to analyze itself. When I criticize the American movement, I do so with great appreciation for the work the movement has done.

But also, if the movement does not take advantage of this moment, perhaps the most hurtful moment in its history, to rethink ourselves as a movement, it will be a lost opportunity.

So I think it’s time to be really critical, not with the idea of ​​pointing fingers, but with the idea of ​​strengthening the movement. And again, that’s where I think the work we’ve done in Latin America and other countries could be very helpful.

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