What Latin American feminists can teach American women about the abortion fight

When news leaked of the possible overturning of Roe v Wade, tweets and commentaries began circulating calling for people in the United States to learn from experiences in Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia – countries that have recently managed to decriminalize abortion – or from Chile, where it is included in the new constitutional project. This call is interesting because it reveals a new and powerful force rising from Latin America, where the right to abortion was won by a mass feminist movement in the streets. It also challenges the conventional map of progress and women’s rights. It is no longer an issue of an advanced “first world” or “global north,” while the “global south” lags behind. This is a unique political opportunity to reflect on the strategies and arguments for reproductive freedom deployed by the “green tide”, which fights for abortion rights.

In Argentina, there are multiple reasons behind the expansion of the green tide and the demand for legal abortion from below. On the one hand, there is the long history of activism by the Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion, formed 15 years ago as a nationwide network, defined by its federal character and its emphasis on participatory democracy and pluralism. On the other hand, more recently the feminist movement reached the mass scale with mobilizations for “Ni Una Menos. Vivas y libres nos queremos” (“Not One Woman Less. We want ourselves alive and free”), against the multiple and interconnected forms of gender-based violence. These were tied to the organization of the international feminist strikes that drew connections between feminized economic violence and precarity and other forms of gender-based violence.

An important element for understanding the massiveness of these mobilizations was precisely the way in which the struggle for abortion was woven together with other feminist struggles. This allowed for cognitively and politically connecting the different forms of violence against women and feminized bodies as systemic violence. The violence of often deadly and costly clandestine abortion was thus connected to domestic violence, sexual harassment and the gendered pay gap in the workplace, and to the murders of female environmental and Indigenous activists in rural areas. In turn, this enabled constructing the demand for abortion in terms that go beyond a merely individual right, challenging the conception of the body as private property.

The green tide flooded spaces everywhere, including schools, slums, unions, squares, and soup kitchens. Through this transversality, the body that had been put up for debate took on a collective and class dimension. This occurred because discussion about the clandestine condition of abortion directly referred to the costs that make it differentially risky according to one’s social and economic position. Those who were most harmed by the criminalization of abortion were the women and people with the capacity to gestate with the fewest economic resources, those who could not pay for safe abortions. Therefore, the right to abortion was considered inseparable from the demand that it be guaranteed in the public health care system. In turn, the demand for comprehensive sexual education in the public education curriculum allowed for deepening debates about sexualities, corporealities, relationships, and affects, displacing the question in a radical way.

In this way, the broadening of the debate over abortion took place in terms of autonomy and class. Young people took leadership in the streets, with the patient support of the “pioneers” from older generations. New language became common sense, using gender-neutral terms in the highly gendered Spanish language, and specifically speaking of gestating persons, thanks to the struggle of non-binary people and trans men. The movement combined parliamentary lobbying with the autonomous practices of self-organized underground networks that had made abortion possible for many every year with massive and heterogeneous mobilizations in the street.

Finally, the green tide has became an internationalist impulse mapping out struggles and legislation, bringing together a feminist agenda that goes well beyond a demand for an individual right. Understanding the relationship between unpaid and/or badly paid labour and expensive and unsafe abortions enabled a broader analysis of the forms of precarisation of our lives, modes of control in the name of the democracy of the labour market, and ecclesiastic tutelage over desire and autonomous decision-making. Furthermore, abortion has become the banner for rekindled regressive forces that articulated a true conservative counter-offensive. An internationalist perspective allows us to both map the global dimension of those reactionary forces and take inspiration and learn from struggles that have successfully linked the right to abortion to other feminist demands and attacks on collective autonomy.

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