MEXICO CITY — Women’s rights activists in Latin America have long looked to the United States as a model in their decades-long struggle to chip away at abortion restrictions in their highly religious countries.
But after a historic Mexican Supreme Court ruling decriminalizing abortion on the federal level, some think U.S. activists should now turn to their counterparts south of the border as they navigate a post-Roe v. Wade reality.
“In Mexico we have a lot of experience,” said Rebeca Ramos, a lawyer and director of GIRE, the organization behind the Mexican court case. “And given the current situation in the United States, it’s something we can share with them.”
Latin America is in the midst of what’s come to be known as a “green wave,” as countries like Mexico, Colombia and Argentina have knocked down major abortion restrictions in recent years.
For decades, green has been emblematic of Latin America’s abortion-rights movement, which took hold in the 1980s in Argentina, a country that until recently had some of the region’s strictest prohibitions. Argentine women’s activist Susana Chiarotti said she originally proposed adopting the color for the cause in 2003 as a way of changing the narrative around the issue.
“It’s the color that represents life, nature. It was to try to show that we are the ones defending life,” the 76-year-old activist said.
Chiarotti said she and others often took inspiration from the United States, such as using language from Roe, the landmark 1973 decision which was overturned in 2022, and borrowing the tactics of both the country’s feminist movement and the anti-abortion camp as well.
Just as U.S. conservatives worked for decades to incrementally roll back abortion access and stack courts with conservative justices, abortion-rights groups in Latin America took a similar long-term, bit-by-bit approach.
While grassroots organizations rallied protesters to take to the streets, leaders sought support from international human rights groups and began to take the battle to the courts. Meanwhile they shared strategies with organizers engaged in their own fights in other countries.
“We have gone little-by-little because of the massive obstacles we have had to overcome,” Chiarotti said.
Mexico’s abortion fight
Some Latin American countries, like Colombia and Ecuador, have since expanded abortion access and eased restrictions. Others, like Chile, have considered such measures but have yet to take action. Still others, like El Salvador and Guatemala, have total or near-total abortion bans on the books with little prospect for change anytime soon, underscoring the long road still ahead in the region.
Abortion-rights groups in Mexico won their first big victory 16 years ago when Mexico City became the first jurisdiction in the country to decriminalize the procedure.
Then, two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion could not be treated as a crime in the northern border state of Coahuila. A gradual, state-by-state process of pushing for decriminalization culminated last week when the central state of Aguascalientes became the 12th to do so.
This week’s ruling by the high court involved a case brought forward by GIRE, one of the Mexican groups that collaborated with Chiarotti in the early days.
The Mexico ruling is not as sweeping and immediate as Roe was: It does not automatically decriminalize the procedure in the 20 states that still have abortion written into the criminal code. It does, however, mandate that federal health care providers, which cover 70% of the population, provide abortion services.
It also marks a dramatic change in this predominantly Catholic society that could lend momentum to activists across the country.
Despite Mexico’s proximity to Texas, which has heavily restricted abortion access, few expect this week’s ruling to result in an influx of American women traveling to the country for abortions.
Cathy Torres, a leader at Frontera Fund, a reproductive health organization near the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas, said the closest access to the procedure that women in her community have is in New Mexico, a 14 hour drive away.
Still, “abortions have always happened,” Torres said. “People have always found a way of living in a border area. People aren’t just going to all of a sudden begin going to Mexico.”
But some, like Veronica Cruz of the central Mexican group Las Libres — Spanish for “free women” — say the cumulative actions of Mexican activists have offered women in the U.S. more alternatives to care either in Mexico or remotely, which are likely only to grow with time.
“The Court’s decision … represents more opportunities for women in restrictive areas of the United States,” she said.
From grassroots activism to long-term change
For 23 years, Cruz’s organization has formed networks to provide tele-abortion services, which involve women having medical abortions under the guidance of activists over a call. It was a form of resistance against Mexican laws, she said.
Some calls for that assistance have also come from the United States — largely Texas — and since the repeal of Roe, that number has jumped from 10 a day to around 100. Cruz said such networks and on-the-ground outreach will be crucial for U.S. activists.
“We can’t stop going out on the streets, and we have to keep working woman by woman, home by home, family by family, community by community,” she said. “With institutions, there’s always a risk that (our work) gets demolished.”
Ramos, of GIRE, also sees the Mexican experience as offering lessons for U.S. activists who are now fighting the abortion fight on a state-by-state level. Slowly building support with an eye to effecting long-term policy change is crucial, she said.
“What I think we can share is precisely the need in the United States to think of strategies on a local level,” Ramos said.
Religious and conservative Mexicans still stand staunchly in opposition to expanded abortion access. In some cases, U.S. groups have also been expanding anti-abortion activism into Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.
“The legalization of abortion erodes the foundations of the rule of law, and distorts the concept and practice of human rights,” the Mexican Catholic Church leadership said Thursday in a statement.
So abortion-rights groups are not the only ones with a keen interest in events in the United States. Activists at the Civil Association for the Rights of the Conceived, for example, are taking a long-term view of this week’s court decision.
“We’re not going to stop,” said the group’s director, Irma Barrientos. “Let’s remember what happened in the United States. After 40 years the Supreme Court reversed its abortion decision, and we’re not going to stop until Mexico guarantees the right to life from the moment of conception.”