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What the U.S. can learn from abortion rights wins in Latin America

Demonstrators wave green headscarf outside the Argentine Congress in Buenos Aires, in December 2020, where legislators started to debate a bill to legalize abortion.
Emiliano Lasalvia
AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators wave green headscarf outside the Argentine Congress in Buenos Aires, in December 2020, where legislators started to debate a bill to legalize abortion.

Protests for reproductive rights in Latin America have been flooded 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 effective. In the last two years, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia have decriminalized or fully legalized abortion. Other neighboring countries like Chile could be next.

Now, with federal abortion protections in the U.S. gone, reproductive rights advocates in the States may be looking to their counterparts in Latin America for inspiration and strategy.

Maria Antonieta Alcalde is the director of IPAs in Central America and Mexico, an organization that promotes safe and legal abortion access around the world. She joined All Things Considered to share perspectives from her own work, and to give insight on what the movement in the U.S. could do next.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

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

One of the things that has been crucial to advance the abortion rights in Latin America has been the green wave. The green wave is this movement that is very grassroots. It's a movement where a lot of young people are participating. And I think that what had to happen in Latin America, due to the legal restrictions, is that we as a movement had to explore every avenue to aim and promote access to safe abortion, even within the legal restrictions, but also to mobilize. So we mobilized through big organizations, national and regional organizations.

Activists wave green handkerchiefs in front of the National Congress Building while senators vote for the new abortion law on August 8, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Amilcar Orfali / Getty Images
Getty Images
Activists wave green handkerchiefs in front of the National Congress Building while senators vote for the new abortion law on August 8, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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. You just have to be out there, to wear your green scarf and and to help women to have access to information about safe and legal abortion.

On whether greater access to abortions has translated into more abortions happening

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

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

So if you come to Mexico to a public health clinic, women not only receive a very good quality of service to interrupt the pregnancy, but they also receive, for example, counseling in the case that they are facing a situation of a violence. So they can have access to other services to escape from those situations. They are also offered contraceptives for free. So most of the women that come to a clinic for an abortion, leave that clinic not only with the abortion, but also with contraceptives. Most of the time, it's a long-term acting contraceptive like an implant.

If their partners come with them, they even offer vasectomies for their partners. So when you are able to provide a legal abortion in the public health system, you address the needs of the most vulnerable people. Those are the ones who go to the public health system and you are able to offer comprehensive services that will prevent them from coming back one or two more times with an unwanted pregnancy.

On where the abortion rights movement failed in the U.S.

This is a very good time to rethink ourselves, because I also feel part of the movement in the U.S.

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

Maybe the other element is that this is a movement that has a part of their strength based on big organizations. I'm talking about Planned Parenthood or even the Center for Reproductive rights. [Because then] it's not about the access to abortion, it's about Planned Parenthood. If someone disagrees even a little bit with you as an organization, there is not a lot of room to go to another space or to be part of the movement.

I think that had hindered the organization because there are other ways, other expressions of the movement, including expressions from the Latina movement, including expressions from the African American movement, that haven't been strong within these morals of big organizations.

And maybe the third one is that the model in the U.S. is very clinical. You access an abortion service in a clinic with everything that is required in terms of infrastructure, in terms of medical equipment and personnel, while in other places of the world the self-managed abortion pathway to access and abortion has been stronger. More and more women are self-managing their abortions and for that you don't need a clinic.

On if she has hope for the abortion rights movement in the U.S.

I think that these are foundational moments, or re-foundational moments for the U.S.

I think that this is the time for the movement to analyze itself. When I'm critical about the U.S. movement, I do it with a lot of recognition of the work that the movement has done.

But also, if the movement doesn't take this moment, maybe the most hurtful moment in its history, and rethink ourselves as a movement, it will be a waste of opportunity.

So I think that this is a moment to really be critical, not with the idea of pointing fingers at each other, but with the idea of strengthening the movement. And again, that's where I think that the work that we've been doing in Latin America and in other countries could be very useful.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
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