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The 'Marea Verde' vs 'Pro-Vida' movements: the fight over abortion rights in Latin America

By Marco Roberto Porras (edited by Sonja Rijnen)-


Latin America is a region of many wonders, with beautiful and charming landscapes, cultures and people. However, the region is also known for having some of the strictest sanctions in the world regarding abortion and reproductive rights. For example, women could face up to 40 years of imprisonment for having an abortion in El Salvador. This is extremely significant, considering that an estimated 6.5 million abortions were performed annually between 2010 and 2014 in the region, of which only one in four took place in a safe environment. This shows that abortions happen regardless of their legality and that laws prohibiting and criminalising abortions do not prevent them.

The fight over abortion rights in Latin America is an extremely salient issue which in many ways reflects ideological battles in the region. As well as this, the right to free and safe abortion has become a key milestone in the broad movement for women’s rights for countries in the region.

Interestingly, recent trends in the region suggest that the legal status of the right to abortions could rapidly change. While most countries in Latin America still hold strong bans or limitations on abortion rights, many are starting to relax laws and some countries have even legalised abortion. While the 'Marea Verde' ('Green Wave') movement supports the legalisation and depenalisation of abortion, the Pro-Vida (pro-life) movement seeks to maintain the illegality of abortions under the notion of Christian values and to preserve life from the moment of conception. In this sense, these two movements face each other across the region in an ideological battle; however, this struggle is not a mere legal issue around abortion laws but is a battle over people’s right to self-determination and to have control over own their bodies.

The ‘Marea Verde’

Women’s dedication to fighting for the right to decide over their own bodies and make their own choices is strongly advancing the force of the reproductive rights movement across the region. This is illustrated by the fact that quite a few countries in the region have, in recent years, started processes to decriminalise abortions, with the most prominent examples being Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Mexico, and, most recently, Colombia. This ‘Marea Verde’ (or ‘green wave’, because of green handkerchiefs, or scarves, that the movement is associated with) marked historic milestones to promote reproductive health rights of women and persons with reproductive ability across a strongly religious region that has traditionally seen abortion as immoral and sinful.

Recently, some countries have witnessed huge demonstrations that have strongly pushed governmental bodies to really consider changing laws and approach the issue around abortions differently. For example, In Ecuador, people have been taking to the streets to prone congressmen and women to expand the legal framework to include legal abortions for cases of rape and child pregnancies, and not only in cases of life/health threats to the carrier. Several other protests also took place during International Safe Abortion Day (September 28), with rallies in Chile, Mexico and El Salvador aiming at setting a further milestone in the legalisation of abortions.

Having said this, the topic of abortion is still very complex and debated across Latin America. While Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana, French Guyana, and Puerto Rico legalised abortions, there are still barriers, even in these countries, to safe and legal procedures because of ambiguous sentiments regarding this issue. As well as this, legalisation does not mean that they are freely available to all. In different countries, there are different circumstances in which abortions are allowed, with exemptions applying to different contexts.

The Pro-Vida movement

On the other hand, as would be expected from a region where nearly 70% of the population self-identifies as (strongly) Catholic, many still hold very divisive postures regarding abortions. For example in Peru, 40% of people believe abortions should be prohibited, and even in Brazil and Mexico (both countries that recently legalised abortions), the figure stands at 33% and 28% of people respectively. This particular conservative posture is especially thriving under the ‘Pro-Vida’ (pro-life) movement.

Across Latin America, 5 countries strictly prohibit abortions, imposing heavy sanctions on anyone who gets these, willingly or accidentally; these countries are El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, and Haiti. These countries rely heavily on Christian values related to family and the preservation of life in order to enforce their strict viewpoints on abortion. For instance, El Salvador is a country that strictly prohibits abortions under any circumstances, even when these occur as an obstetric emergency or as miscarriages. Sadly, in the country, there are several cases of women that have been imprisoned because they suffered from involuntary miscarriages, with some sentences as harsh as 30 years for “aggravated homicide”. However, even under such strict laws on abortion, some progress can be discerned in the country, with at least five women being released after serving shorter sentences: this can be mostly attributed to the effort of the Marea Verde which is (slowly) shifting the perspective even of the most conservative countries.

Some countries that have less but still heavily restrictive and tough bans on abortion are Paraguay, Venezuela, Guatemala, Peru, and Costa Rica, where abortions are only (legally) allowed only when a pregnancy is threatening to the life or health of the carrier. However, even in a country like Costa Rica, where abortions can be legally performed to protect the life or health of the carrier, the strong Christian values pose a tremendous barrier for actual access to abortions: the numerous stereotypes around gender roles, and the vocal religious opposition against people’s right to decide over their own bodies, perpetuate the taboo around abortions, therefore creating legal loopholes and difficult access to these, like in the case of a 12-year-old Costa Rican girl who was the victim of incest by her father, resulting in a traumatizing pregnancy. In these cases, abortions are legal only on paper.

Similarly, Chile and Brazil also have a tough legal framework regarding abortions (but not as much as the above countries), allowing these to be performed under additional conditions- abortions are also possible in cases of pregnancy as a result of rape, or because of the unviability of the fetus to survive. In other words, in these two countries, abortions are more broadly available, although is not yet a widely accessible right.

Now what?

Seemingly, the regional trend regarding abortion is taking an increasingly more progressive standpoint. However, this is only the beginning. While many countries in the region still hold strong religious values that generate quite some barriers to the advancement of reproductive rights, this impasse is slowly being tackled by the determination of the 'Marea Verde' movement to promote the freedom of people to decide over their bodies.

Although only a handful of countries in the region completely prohibit abortions altogether, the great majority still hold quite some restrictions and conditionalities for access to legal abortions. Even in countries where abortions are legally allowed, people often struggle to actually get the procedure done safely, because of religious values and gender biases that create tense situations and taboo around the topic. However, the strength of the 'Marea Verde', and of the women (and allies) that participate in the movement, is setting the precedents to shift the viewpoint of the region regarding this topic. Progress is being made across a traditionally conservative region that is slowly being coloured green.




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