Mar 5, 2024 - World

U.S. abortion rights setbacks spark fears in Latin America

 Illustration of a person with their head in their hands, sitting against a larger-than-life stethoscope.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Concerns in Latin America that abortion rights could face setbacks similar to those in the U.S. are adding urgency to the protests planned for International Women's Day this Friday, Marina writes.

Why it matters: Regions of Latin America already are some of the most dangerous in the world for people who wish or need to terminate a pregnancy.

Threat level: Abortion bans can jeopardize the lives of women in trauma situations where continuing the pregnancy puts a woman's life at risk.

  • Last month, Adilka Féliz, a senator's legal aide in the Dominican Republic — where there is a full ban on abortion— died from complications after an emergency premature birth procedure. She had an unviable pregnancy but was denied an abortion, her mother says.

The bans also carry legal dangers for people who suffer miscarriages.

State of play: Since 2020, Mexico, Colombia and Argentina have decriminalized or legalized voluntary abortion. Brazil is considering decriminalizing abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

  • Those nations' courts and lawmakers argued prohibitions impinge on individuals' right to autonomy and that bans pushed people to turn to unsafe alternatives.
  • When Argentina's Congress legalized abortion until the 14th week of pregnancy, lawmakers cited official statistics showing more than 3,000 women had died from clandestine abortions.

Yes, but: The rights gained in those countries are now in peril, activists say.

  • Argentine President Javier Milei's party last month submitted a draft bill to criminalize abortion once again, saying it's an unjustifiable practice. His government also withdrew funds from the Ministry for Women and Gender, which runs programs for domestic-violence victims and offers free menstrual hygiene products.
  • Access to a voluntary abortion isn't assured in Mexico and Colombia despite being decriminalized because local or state authorities can impede federally recognized rights.
  • Abortion pills are difficult to get in many areas and some state authorities haven't clarified the rules for in-clinic procedures, so providers still fear repercussions, says Georgina Díaz, a Mexican OB/GYN who's campaigned for abortion rights.

Between the lines: Milei and other far-right leaders in Latin America have been emboldened in their opposition to abortion rights since the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, a recent report from the group Fos Feminista found.

What they're saying: "The United States went backwards and is now navigating an environment of restrictions that is generally new to them," Paula Ávila Guillén, director of the Women's Equality Center, said during a regional roundtable last month.

  • "While in Latin America, where for years we navigated restrictions, now we're figuring out how to protect some of our victories while we push for policy progress in countries that still have total bans," she added.
  • She says it's key to keep fighting regionally in a "borderless movement" dubbed Marea Verde, or green wave, and to also support abortion-rights defenders in the U.S.

What to watch: Several countries are considering new measures.

  • Honduras, where emergency contraception had been outlawed until last year, is debating a bill on whether to make sex education mandatory in schools.
  • Lack of such information is a major contributor to Honduras having the highest rate of teen pregnancy in all of Central America, studies show.

In the Dominican Republic, statements from President Luis Abinader to decriminalize abortions in cases of rape or fetal inviability have yet to turn into actions, activist Sergia Galván says.

  • She says that despite cases like Adilka Féliz's, a move to include those exceptions in a criminal code reform, under debate in Congress, has been stonewalled by lawmakers closely linked to large evangelical churches.
  • The code as currently written has yearslong prison sentences for women who abort a pregnancy and doctors who help them.
  • But the country's upcoming elections could spur changes, Galván says. Abinader is leading polls and some congressional candidates who support abortion are running.
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