November 7, 2023   4 mins

The streets of Latin America are awash with green, the colour of the handkerchiefs, T-shirts, and protest signs sported in support of the region’s triumphant reproductive rights movement. This “green wave” has recently appeared unstoppable. Last month, Mexican feminists celebrated the Supreme Court’s ruling to decriminalise abortion — the latest in a series of victories in the region, which has also seen the relaxation of legislation in Argentina, Uruguay, Guyana and Colombia.

There is one big exception to this trend toward liberalisation in the Americas: the United States. Last summer, American women lost their constitutional right to end a pregnancy overnight. While abortion remains broadly legal in America’s more progressive, mostly coastal states, it is outlawed in 14 states, and restricted, at risk, or unprotected across most of the south and middle of the country. Today, three states will see quasi-referendums on the issue, which has come to define local elections across the country. As a result, American feminists are looking south of the border and asking: what can we learn from Latin America?

Years of organising precipitated the green wave. In 2006, Colombia loosened abortion restrictions; in 2007, Mexico City legalised the procedure. Those hard-fought successes gave the feminist movement the confidence to broaden its approach. Instead of focusing primarily on passing laws in legislatures, they took up a kind of kitchen-sink strategy: do it all, try everything, see what works. While some focused on using the justice system to effect change, others prioritised bringing young people into activism. Women spoke out about their own experiences in a push to destigmatise abortion — and feminist groups put pressure on politicians to highlight women’s rights. This combination accelerated the green wave.

In the United States, advocacy has long been focused on the courts, and for good reason: the legalisation of abortion came via Supreme Court decisions, and efforts to curtail access were most successful when implemented legislatively and upheld by the legal system. But groups working in the community here and building cross-movement relationships are routinely under-funded and under-resourced.

Another crucial tactic in Latin America has been to emphasise that outlawing abortion doesn’t end it; it just makes it less safe. Many nations where the procedure is illegal have high rates; indeed, while it remains restricted in much of Latin America, the region has a significantly higher rate than Europe, where abortion has long been legal in most nations. Those places where abortion is restricted also tend to see far higher unintended pregnancy rates. In these countries, women often turn to abortion-inducing pills which they source from feminist groups, or from pharmacies or hospitals where they’re sold under the counter or prescribed for other purposes. If they can’t access the pills, which are overwhelmingly safe, some women resort to far riskier methods — drinking poisons, inserting sticks, or going to untrained freelance providers who make promises they may not keep. There are also much higher rates of maternal death and injury due to unsafe procedures.

This is why feminists routinely state just how common abortion is — even where it is illegal. The difference between legalising abortion and banning it is a choice between making procedures that will inevitably take place safe or potentially deadly.

Latin American feminist groups have also emphasised the importance of abortion access, most recently in Mexico. There, the Supreme Court decision is a step towards legal abortion nationwide, but states throughout the country will still need to lift their own bans on the procedure for Mexican women to have full access. American feminists are taking a similar tack: with abortion now criminalised in many states, there has been a renewed effort to invest in funds which will pay for women to get from abortion-hostile states to ones where the procedure is legal.

They are also fighting each state ban, as well as trying to get the issue on ballots. In every single case where abortion has been voted upon, pro-choice has won. In the conservative states of Kansas and Kentucky, voters rejected proposed bans; in California, Michigan, and Vermont, voters elected to enshrine abortion rights into their state constitutions. As a result, opponents have been working overtime to keep abortion off the ballot — voters, some Republicans argue, simply shouldn’t have a say. Pro-choice activists disagree.

Meanwhile, healthcare workers continue to provide safe abortions. A new report suggests that rates have slightly increased nationally since the Supreme Court decided to overturn Roe v. Wade. They have also increased in liberal states, as thousands of women have travelled there to terminate pregnancies. American women are also going to Mexico — particularly those living in states along the southern border where abortion has been outlawed. At first glance, this seems like a throwback to the pre-Roe era, when scared women would cross the border for procedures that were often dangerous. Now, though, women who go to Mexico to end a pregnancy are most likely to procure on abortion pills. With the latest ruling on abortion from Mexico’s Supreme Court, more Americans may head south seeking safe, legal terminations. But first, states across Mexico will need to update their local laws to fully legalise the procedure.

The Latin American Green Wave is one model for how feminists worldwide might move forward. But the global movement has also been influenced by developments in the Americas, and has been paying especially close attention to the US. “One of the lessons from Dobbs is that rights are not guaranteed; there can always be setbacks,” two activists told me. This is why, they say, any fight for abortion rights has to recognise “the importance of not having a single source of recognition of the right to abortion”.

The Mexico Supreme Court did not wave a magic wand and make abortion legal and accessible for all women  any more than the US Supreme Court made abortion universally inaccessible. When it comes to the question of whether a woman can get an abortion when she needs one, legal changes are hugely significant — but they are not the sole determinants of whether a woman, or girl, will have to continue her pregnancy against her will. And that, perhaps, is the most powerful lesson that American feminists have learned from women in Latin America. If abortion is truly a woman’s right to choose for herself, then the ability to have an abortion must be in women’s hands, whether or not her government grants permission.


Jill Filipovic is a writer, lawyer and author. Her Substack can be found at jill.substack.com

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