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Handkerchiefs for Hope

illustration by Lana Wang '24, an Illustration major at RISD

In Buenos Aires, a crowd of protestors dressed in green gathered in the Plaza de Mayo to patiently await the decision of the Argentinian government. They stood packed together, nervous with anticipation and ready to celebrate. And that evening, they exploded with joy as they heard the news they had been waiting for: Argentina’s legislature voted to legalize abortion through the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

This monumental decision, made in December 2020, catalyzed a domino effect of reproductive rights legislation across Latin America. In the past three years, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia have all decriminalized or legalized abortion. These changes were not brought about spontaneously; rather, they are the product of strategic, feminist organizing, which harnessed political and social power to advance women’s rights through local demonstrations, coalition building, and education campaigns.

In Argentina, one of the most effective strategies deployed by activists was the creation of the green handkerchief symbol. The movement’s distinctive emblem alludes to the white handkerchiefs worn by Las Madres de la Plaza Mayo, a group of women who protested the Argentinian government’s violence during the Dirty War and fought to find their missing family members. Although the goals of La Marea Verde, or the Green Wave, are quite different from those of Las Madres de la Plaza Mayo, the adoption of handkerchiefs hearkens back to Argentina’s rich tradition of female-led social change.

Shortly after Argentina legalized abortion, in September 2021, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that the criminalization of abortion was unconstitutional. Although this decision did not go as far as Argentina’s, experts still see it as a pathway case, contending that it hints at future abortion legalization in Mexico. Like in Argentina, this decision indubitably resulted from the work of feminist movements across Latin America. Mexican organizers even adopted the symbol of the green handkerchief as a part of their organizing strategy, visibly tying their movement to that of Argentina.

In addition to borrowing strategies from Argentine organizers, Mexican activists have adopted novel tactics. According to reproductive rights activist Isabel Fulda, women “mobiliz[ed] and demonstrat[ed] in places that had never seen marches for abortion before.” General enthusiasm for the Green Wave has fostered the creation of support networks and feminist cells within different states. These groups helped with the state-by-state application of political pressure, with the states of Hidalgo, Veracruz, and Baja California all legalizing abortion in 2021. Along with Oaxaca and Mexico City—which legalized abortion in 2019 and 2007, respectively—these states collectively comprise 23 percent of Mexico’s population.

The newest addition to the blossoming feminist movement in Latin America is Colombia, which decriminalized abortion in February 2022. This decision is especially noteworthy because until 2006—when legislators instituted exceptions for certain non-viable pregnancies, pregnancies that threatened the mother’s health, and pregnancies resulting from rape or incest—Colombia had maintained a complete abortion ban. To bring about this radical policy change, a reproductive rights coalition named Causa Justa not only organized protests and exerted political pressure, but also made an effort to stop abortion misinformation at its source. Through the use of videos and social media campaigns, Causa Justa helped destigmatize abortion by showing Colombians that decriminalization ought to be about healthcare, not politics. The movement was especially effective because it relied on local organizations to reach out to women across political, social, and economic divides and understood the obstacles to abortion access.

Similar to grassroots organizations in the United States, Colombian feminists moved from localized advocacy to the courts. The framing of abortion as a healthcare issue outside the jurisdiction of the penal system was especially salient because the Colombian judicial system is less politicized than other branches of government, and thus more receptive to this messaging.

Latin American feminist movements were finally able to see years of advocacy work come to fruition in the courts partly as a result of demographic and ideological changes. Latin America has long been a predominantly Catholic region; research conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that in 2014, Catholicism was the most popular religion in every single Latin American nation. Over time, however, Catholicism has become less prevalent: While in 1995, Latin America was 80 percent Catholic, by 2018, this figure had dropped to 59 percent. These demographic trends have coincided with increased feminist organizing, as activists have taken full advantage of the shifts in Latin America’s cultural landscape to ignite real change.

Even among those who continue to identify as Catholic, there proves to be a greater tolerance toward abortion. Although the Church opposes abortion at an institutional level, a great diversity of opinion exists among Catholics. This schism occurs in part across generational lines, with young Catholics tending to be more supportive of abortion than older ones. Consequently, in the past five years, citizens of Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Brazil have seen a notable spike in positive public opinion towards abortion. These changes have had tangible effects in the governments’ legislative composition and policy choices, as legislative bodies in these countries have no choice but to react to large swings in public opinion.

As Latin America becomes more secular, the potential spillover effects of these reproductive rights movements are immense. The Argentinian movement helped to inspire the Mexican and Colombian movements, which in turn have the potential to influence women’s grassroots activism across the Latin American region as a whole. For example, Brazil, which will soon be majority non-Catholic and contains growing grassroots support for reproductive rights, might be the next country to amend its abortion laws. If its lawmakers act, policy changes in Brazil will further demonstrate that legislation responds to shifts in public opinion and demographics. The reproductive rights movements could also reach countries like El Salvador and Honduras, which do not currently have feminist movements on the same scale as those of Argentina or Mexico. Established reproductive rights organizations have an opportunity to act as transnational moral entrepreneurs, helping activists in neighboring countries build blossoming abortion rights movements.

The work of feminist grassroots movements in Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia should be used in the rest of Latin America as blueprints for success. Over the past three years, these movements have made extraordinary inroads towards increasing access to legal, safe abortions. They have built a Green Wave that has secured reproductive rights for hundreds of millions of women. As one Argentine protester said: “It is not a question of morals. It is not a question of ethics. It is a question of health.”