Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies

Historical Debates on Abortion from Chile, Argentina, and Mexico

May 13, 2021

The Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies (CLAIS) celebrated the final event of its series on gender in Latin America with an livestreamed panel of illustrious trailblazers in the fight for abortion rights. Presenting in Spanish with simultaneous English translation, the three panelists provided first-hand historical context on the state of abortion rights in Chile, Argentina, and Mexico. 

Currently running as a candidate for the Asamblea Constituyente de Chile, Elisa Walker is a lawyer with graduate degrees in law and political philosophy. She addressed the contested emergence of a woman’s voice in abortion regulation in Chile in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, recounting the story as three dramatical acts.

Chile’s 1931 Sanitary Code was the first attempt to regulate abortion. Walker described this period as “the doctor’s act.”  Women had “neither voice nor opinion.” Instead, male doctors determined whether one of two causes had been met that justified the termination of a pregnancy.

“The second act in this obra de teatro (theatrical work) is called dictatorship.” Between a right-wing coup against socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973 and the restoration of democracy in 1990, there emerged a phobia against the possibility that pregnancies could be terminated at all. Right before the handover of power in 1990, the outgoing government furtively and unilaterally made abortion illegal under all circumstances.

In 2008, the Chilean Ministry of Health issued a decree permitting the use of the morning-after pill and intrauterine devices. Opponents declared the act an attack on the right to life, initiating a legal battle that ended up in the Constitutional Court of Chile which agreed with the decree’s opponents. According to Walker, not only was the decision wrong on its face, it also made no mention of women and their rights.

Elisa Walker  got involved in this history in 2014, working for a legislative team behind a new law seeking to expand the old 1931 justifications for terminating pregnancy. For the first time in Chilean history, a law was up for debate which gave women, “not a judge or a doctor,” the right to decide to terminate a pregnancy. President Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s first woman president, officially submitted the law to the National Congress for approval and it was approved, becoming law in 2017. Although there is still no constitutional right to abortion, the ability to terminate a pregnancy is legally regulated in certain circumstances.

Following a historic vote in the National Congress of Argentina in December 2020, abortion is now legal until the fourteenth week of pregnancy. Martha Rosenberg, a feminist medical doctor, psychoanalyst and co-founder of the Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito, described how the feminist movement for abortion rights built a truly national and diverse campaign that resulted in the historic victory.

For Rosenberg, the path to abortion rights in Argentina is part of a broader story of economic and political transformation resulting from the end of the military dictatorship and the rise of neoliberalism. “Because the appropriation of the capacity to bear children is a fundamental part of the patriarchy, abortion has the potential to subvert and convoke coalitions of diverse political subjects”

The National Campaign for Abortion, which officially formed in 2005 from a meeting in the city of Córdoba, focused on uniting dispersed activist movements for reproductive and sexual rights. At the time, the context for abortion rights in Argentina was not unlike that of Chile between 1931 and 1990, permitted only in situations where the pregnancy threatened the mother’s life or was the result of rape.

The National Campaign fought for the right to safe, legal, and free abortion. All three qualities were essential in order to guarantee that all pregnant people could make decisions over their body with freedom and dignity. The push for abortion also combined with a climate of resistance provoked by the 2000s economic crisis, and the fight for reproductive rights was marked by its strong links with the LGBTQ movement.

Speaking about Mexico, Marta Lamas, anthropologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, reflected on the paradoxes of access and rights from the vantage of five decades of participating in the feminist movement.

Until 2007, abortion was only allowed in the 32 Mexican states in situations where the mother’s life was at risk or in cases of rape. It was not a mass movement that made the Distrito Federal, where the capital Mexico City is located, change this situation.

In the 2006 Mexican presidential elections, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), lost by a slim margin. Refusing to accept defeat and claiming electoral fraud, the left in Mexico was both angry and mobilized. In Mexico City, the mayor Marcelo Ebrard, a close associate of AMLO’s, proved receptive to the petitions to extend the right to abortion. Finally, the feminist groups and civil associations who had been pursuing a juridical and legislative strategy to get the right to abortion had found an ally, and abortion was officially legalized up to the first twelve weeks. Since then, only the state of Oaxaca has granted a similar right.

Unlike in Argentina, the process of advancing abortion rights in Mexico occurred without mass mobilization. Censorship of abortion has been a major problem. Lamas recounted how in 1991, the issue of abortion was discussed in a debate on television that lasted from late at night to early in the morning. Until very recently, broadcasting in Mexico was monopolized by two companies. Seeing the enormous attention given to the issue of abortion legalization from across the country, a group of conservative Catholic businessmen used their influence on the television broadcasters to unofficially ban discussions on the issue. This situation is now being challenged by the rise of social media and the mediatisation of a feminist movement, represented by their distinctive green handkerchiefs, dedicated to ending violence, impunity, and securing rights.

Directed by associate professor of Comparative Literature Moira Fradinger, this discussion on gender in Latin America will continue next year. The Latin American Interdisciplinary Gender Network, coordinated by CLAIS and the UNAM, is committed to providing a forum for sharing insight and experiences from across the region. You can learn about previous and upcoming conversations on LAIGN’s webpage and social media.  

By Joshua Mentanko