IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The era of the U.S. proclaiming itself as a champion for women is over

In the imminent post-Roe world, the U.S. will no longer be at the forefront of women’s rights in a region it pretends to lead.
Photo diptych: An image of people celebrating on the left and the image on the right shows a person holding up a sign that reads,\"Keep abortion legal\" amidst a crowd of people.
Abortion rights in Latin American countries are heading in a very different direction than in many U.S. states.MSNBC / Getty Images file

If Monday’s “egregious breach” of a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade leads to abortion’s becoming illegal in 23 states and territories, then those parts of the U.S. will be in the same category as the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname, the six countries in the Western Hemisphere that ban abortions under any circumstances.

Mexico used to jail women who had abortions. Its high court’s ruling takes away that fear.

The inevitable overturning of Roe v. Wade by this country’s highest court is nearly the opposite of what Mexico’s highest court ruled in September when it decriminalized abortion, opening a viable pathway toward national legalization in the world’s second-largest Catholic country. Mexico used to jail women who had abortions. The ruling takes away that fear.

While decriminalization of abortion isn’t the same as making the procedure legal, what happened in Mexico in September is just the latest example of how the idea of greater access to abortion (outside of exceptional reasons such as rape, incest or saving a woman’s life) is gaining traction in Latin America after centuries of the procedure’s being outlawed or heavily restricted. In February, Colombia legalized abortion at up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. Argentina approved abortions at up to 14 weeks in December 2020. The so-called green wave that has propelled such historic wins has established a right to abortion outside Uruguay, Cuba and French Guiana, the small group of Latin American and Caribbean countries where abortion was already legal. Chile failed to follow Argentina’s lead last year, and Peru’s new leftist leader is anti-abortion, but even with those setbacks, the women’s rights movement in Latin America is thriving.

In the imminent post-Roe world, the U.S. will no longer be at the forefront of women’s rights in a region it pretends to lead. Women and their allies who will now be fighting to codify Roe in the U.S. need to look at recent events in Latin America to see how the struggle has always been bigger than any one country, any one congress or any one court.

“Unlike in the past, when the contagion of ideas went from North to South, the new order of moral connection is multidirectional,” reproductive rights organization Fòs Feminista’s CEO, Giselle Carino, said this year in remarks about reproductive rights. “It goes from the South to the South, from the South to the North — that is to say, in multiple directions. Why does this matter? Because herein lies the feminist hope for transformation: in the permanence of feminist movements everywhere and the interconnectivity between them.”

One obvious connection will be between Texas and Mexico. According to an Associated Press report from January 2020, advocates from both sides of the border were meeting to “develop strategies to circumvent new restrictions and find ways to coordinate assistance for women who want to safely end their pregnancies, including getting abortion pills to women in the U.S.” Such strategies have been going on for years between border towns, and given how intense the abortion debate has become in this country, there will likely be an increasing desire to make stronger connections.

The U.S. will no longer be at the forefront of women’s rights in a region it pretends to lead.

Nonetheless, it is wrong to conclude that restrictions in Texas are leading to more abortions in Mexico or that this week’s news out of the Supreme Court will make Mexico a destination for Texans seeking abortions. A women’s clinic worker in the border town of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, said Tuesday that half of the 100 to 150 calls it receives daily come from the U.S., mostly from Texas, but as she told callers, even though abortion is decriminalized in Mexico, Nuevo Laredo is in the state of Tamaulipas, where it is still not allowed.

The legal precedent that led to Mexico’s decriminalization occurred in the neighboring state of Coahuila, and while the decriminalization push is indeed a victory, the path to nationwide decriminalization will take time. But it is significant that no judge in Mexico can convict a woman for having an abortion once it’s brought to the Supreme Court. So even for those who live in a state that still criminalizes abortion, the national court would override local state control in abortion-related cases.

Before September’s court ruling, only four of Mexico’s 32 states had decriminalized abortion, and there has been significant opposition to the ruling. However, advocates who want Mexicans to have access to safe abortion services have a historic court ruling behind them to help them achieve that goal.

In contrast, close to half of the U.S. will ban abortions in all circumstances if Roe is overturned. Abortion rights proponents will surely fight, but unlike their Mexican allies, they won’t have a court ruling for support.

Mexico will move forward, while the U.S. will regress.

Over the years, the U.S. has proclaimed itself a leader of women’s rights in the region, while other countries, like Mexico, were seen as being anti-choice. Who’s leading the cause with bravery now? Clearly not the Supreme Court or the U.S.