Giulia de Nardin


Analyst for the International Relations and Global Governance Department


Felipe Taylor Murta

Analyst for the International Relations and Global Governance Department


Legalisation of abortion in Argentina: a new wave for women’s rights in Latin America?

The year 2020 was a milestone for the women’s rights movement in Argentina. At the end of an extraordinary session in the Argentine Senate on December 30, celebrations began for the supporters of the right to legal, safe, and free abortion also called ‘pañuelos verdes’. Argentina officially decriminalized and legalized abortion within 14 weeks of pregnancy, after which it is allowed only in cases of rape, or if it poses a risk to the woman’s life or health. It is thus the third South American country to legalize elective abortions, after Guyana, where the practice is considered legal since 1995, and Uruguay, which decriminalized it in 2012. In Latin America, Cuba legalized abortion in 1965, while part of Mexico (Mexico City and the Mexican state of Oaxaca) also allows terminations. Public condemnation through social stigmas, widespread misinformation, taboos, religious opposition (both Catholic and Evangelical), and conservatism has postponed the concrete introduction of this matter in the Argentinian legal framework since the mid-2000s, but the ‘Green Tide’ has now obtained a legal reform.

The year 2020 was a milestone for the women’s rights movement in Argentina. At the end of an extraordinary session in the Argentine Senate on December 30, celebrations began for the supporters of the right to legal, safe, and free abortion also called ‘pañuelos verdes’. Argentina officially decriminalized and legalized abortion within 14 weeks of pregnancy, after which it is allowed only in cases of rape, or if it poses a risk to the woman’s life or health. It is thus the third South American country to legalize elective abortions, after Guyana, where the practice is considered legal since 1995, and Uruguay, which decriminalized it in 2012. In Latin America, Cuba legalized abortion in 1965, while part of Mexico (Mexico City and the Mexican state of Oaxaca) also allows terminations. Public condemnation through social stigmas, widespread misinformation, taboos, religious opposition (both Catholic and Evangelical), and conservatism has postponed the concrete introduction of this matter in the Argentinian legal framework since the mid-2000s, but the ‘Green Tide’ has now obtained a legal reform.

We are observing a turning point not only for a country’s public health system but for all Latin American women’s rights. Women seeking abortions in restrictive countries are currently facing individual obstacles, such as income poverty and lack of freedom of movement, as well as other barriers that force them to resort to a self-induced practice, like depraved sanitary and safety conditions of facilities with untrained providers. With this reform, they can now hope that a change will also take place in their country, and in the meantime travel to Argentina to have a safe and accessible abortion. This historic landmark would not have been possible without social, economic, and political transitions that occurred in the region, including the rise of durable mass democracies, especially institutionalized partisan left governments, and the increasing number of female political leaders, which influenced the development of heterogeneous feminist activism and made the legislative debate possible, even under an anti-choice president.


In this sense, this article seeks to understand the impacts that the Argentinian reform, and more specifically, the activist movements that contributed to the legalization of abortion, will have at a regional level in Latin America and the Caribbean.


It analyses the main events that led to the creation of the ‘Green Tide’ movement and the framework within which it operates. It argues that previous successful achievements for women’s rights in Latin America, the rise of democracies allowing political openness to the abortion debate, and the transversal nature of the feminist movement make the future development of pro-choice legal reforms a reality for other countries in the region. The importance of Argentina’s case in legalizing abortion resides not only in the fact that it is the largest country in Latin America to take the step, but rather considering its ties to the Catholic Church. As seen in scholarships, decriminalization of abortion often appears when a country becomes more secular, has a left majority in the executive and legislature, and becomes more sensitive to public opinion. In this sense, it is not astonishing that Uruguay and Cuba, the least religious countries in the region, were the first two countries to legalize abortion under left-party governments, and that Uruguay was the first democratic country to legalize it. Conversely, in Argentina, in spite of decreasing church attendance, religiosity increased steadily until 2017, and discussions concerning abortion were openly received by Mauricio Macri, former president of the country and representative of a conservative party.

In order to understand this deviant case, it is important to focus on the political action of the feminist movement that has been growing since the democratization in 1983. The Madres y Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo, a women-headed movement that incited the condemnation of actions during the military dictatorship, seems to have led the path towards recent strikes, considering that Argentina has since been the stage of contingent politics demonstration through many occasions. In the last two decades, Argentina has shown high levels of citizen engagement in politics, while political institutions have been relatively weak. Specifically, in the case of abortion, it is possible to highlight the creation of the Commission for the Right to Abortion in 1988 and the yearly meeting of Encuentros, a national women’s meeting, that has advanced reproductive discussions since the mid-1990s.

While political mobilization led by Encuentros, especially during their National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion back in 2005, failed to face opposition from conservative groups, the more recent political demonstration of the Ni Una a Menos (“Not a Single Woman Less”) attained good results. Since 2015, the feminist mobilization on the streets has been steady, and relying on the motivating grievance, as a heritage of the Madres and Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo protest, focusing on femicide and the increasing rates of violence against women. Notwithstanding, the inclusion of the abortion matter took place gradually, using the existence of a feminist movement and familiar action framework, making it impossible for the matter not to be included in discussions at the heart of political institutions.

This scenario raises three important questions that require to be considered from a Latin American regional perspective. The debate will flare up in other countries with similarities to Argentina’s restrictive legal framework, mainly due to historical precedents, the link between durable democracies and the advancement of pro-choice reforms, and the transnational nature of Latin American activism. Three examples illustrate how women’s rights achievements are strongly interlinked and able to influence the regional scene: a) The Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) had a profound impact on the development of feminist ideas to reach historical identification and scholars find women’s suffrage in the region to be in its wake. Ecuador was the first country to introduce the right to vote for women (1929). In the same year, Puerto Rico allowed women access to education and granted them the right to vote six years later. The same occurred to Uruguay (1932), Cuba (1933), and El Salvador (1939), and after a stagnation of several years, by 1961 every Latin American country had granted women electoral rights. b) After the advent of neo-feminism (1970s), whose perspective translated into mobilizing on issues of abortion, motherhood, sexual autonomy, rape, and abuse, women fought against repression in military regimes as mothers of the ‘desaparecidos’ (‘disappeared people’) at the hands of the state. In this context, several movements with a common aim emerged in different states throughout the region, such as the group ‘Mujeres en Acción Solidaria’ (MAS) in Mexico (1971), the ‘CoMadres’ (‘Comité de Madres’) in El Salvador (1977) and the ‘Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo’ in Argentina (1977). c) National and international conferences contributed to extending the map of feminist politics during the second wave of feminism (1970s–80s). The periodic Latin American and Caribbean ‘Encuentros’, i.e. regional critical forums for debates about feminist politics, were held in Colombia (1981); Perú (1983); Brazil (1985); Mexico (1987); Argentina (1990); El Salvador (1993); Chile (1996); Dominican Republic (1990); Costa Rica (2002); Brazil (2005); Mexico (2009); Colombia (2011); and Peru (2014). Their growth testifies the spread of women’s movements throughout the region and, as Norma Chinchilla adds, they also “were an opportunity to negotiate region-wide policy agendas and mobilizing strategies [since] the tight web of networks that developed among feminists and other women activists [made] cross-national and regional responses to economic and political changes increasingly viable”.

If we focus on more recent events in Latin American history, we might also observe how most countries have undergone a process of democratization that has contributed largely to the development of activist movements. Democracy does not directly entail the approval of pro-choice reforms (as the case of Nicaragua testifies), but it is a necessary condition for shifting social policies towards this previously neglected issue.

The second point that calls for attention relates to how democracy plays a role in the legalization of abortion and which countries it is expected to have political demonstrations next. One can observe an apparent link between democratic institutions and the advancement of abortion legalization laws. One of the three variables supra cited that are related to the decriminalization of abortion is the sensibility to public opinion, which are often related to democratic regimes. Not surprisingly, according to the Congressional Research Service (2020), the highest democracy index rates in Latin America are in Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina, respectively. Chile and Argentina have been the epicenters of debates and mobilization around gender, sexuality, and reproductive rights in Latin America. During the vote of the bill in Argentina that would later decriminalize abortion, Chilean’s streets were taken by protesters, and since, the country has seen important advances in the matter. For instance, debates around the decriminalization of abortion have now reached Congress, even though the executive remains steady on its opposition.

Democratic regimes also tend to be more receptive to civil mobilization’s demands. As the political field was opened up to new political actors through democracy, the movements went through a process of fragmentation and specialization at local, national, and regional levels (autónomas-institucionalizados), which is linked to the following third point.

The third question refers to how the decision will affect the region as a whole considering the action of transnational activism. Since liberalization and globalization processes occurred back in the 1990s, transnational activist movements have demanded a place in decision-making, where subjects of mobilization have transborder impacts. As pointed out by Silva (2013), transnational activism studies, namely those conducted by Sydney Tarrow (2005; 2011), show that the influence from activists has been growing since the turn of the 21st century and that it flows both upwards (from a local level to an international level) and downwards (from the international level to the local). In Latin America, these movements have been occurring since the beginning of the century, in which evidence is shown mainly with the “pink tide”, when left-turn governments that were elected all over the region with workers political movements being in the background (CTA in Argentina, CUT and MST in Brazil, CSUTCB in Bolivia).

The same process of integrated social movements having cross-border impacts can be seen now during the expansion of the ‘marea verde’ (‘Green Tide’). In spite of the unfolding of the Coronavirus pandemic, women’s activists’ organizations in the Southern Cone maintain direct liaisons through the internet, with the Argentinian’s decision having a greater impact within its neighbors.

The evidence of the impact of the Argentinian reform is taking place in the growth of the grassroots feminist movement ‘Green Tide’. In light of a restrictive context, various transnational efforts were launched to push for more reproductive rights in all countries and a week after the vote and campaigns for abortion started all over the continent: Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia are following Argentina’s example. Among the many organizations that have a growing impact at a regional level and supported the ‘Green Tide’, we will mention the ‘Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights’ (author of the ‘September 28 Campaign’), the ‘Center for Reproductive Rights’, the ‘Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia Y Genero’, the ‘Latin American Consortium Against Unsafe Abortion’, the ‘Network of Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean and Diaspora Women’, and the ‘Safe Abortion Advocacy Initiative – Global South Engagement’. Similarly, many organizations have intensified their work in terms of national campaigns, such as the ‘Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida’ and the ‘Las libres’ movement in Mexico, the ‘Somos Muchas’ collective in Honduras, and the ‘Causa Justa’ movement in Colombia, while the Peruvian Purple Party’s political promises depend on its eventual victory in presidential elections.