Women across Latin America are defying restrictive abortion laws. While governments refuse to accept that criminalization doesn’t reduce the likelihood that women will seek access to abortion, local collectives are providing free legal, health, social and mental health assistance online.
Abortion is murky territory across Latin America. Six countries – Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname – have total bans on abortion. The rest mainly allow abortion under three specific circumstances: in cases of rape, health risk to the mother, and serious fetal anomaly. However, many countries still continue to restrict access to services, a reality that’s escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, feminist collectives have filled the gap left by authorities, designing strategies to accompany and support women in need of reproductive services. These are their stories.
Las Borders, Mexico
Perla Martínez, Ana Graciela Díaz, and Geovana Jacquez accompanied at least 80 home abortions– mainly via Facebook– in September alone. They call themselves Las Borders, a small collective born in 2017 in the northern state of Baja California to inform and guide women through at-home abortions.
“It’s important to provide information so that we can all live a desired motherhood,” says Díaz. “Being able to exercise that autonomy over our bodies even if the state doesn’t guarantee us that right.”
Elective abortion is only legal in Mexico City and the southern state of Oaxaca, only during the first trimester. Abortion is legal in cases of rape in all states, and some states allow abortions if there’s a health risk to the mother or if the fetus is not viable.
“Women can’t go through this anymore, says Martínez.” Women have to have access to information, they have to know that a safe abortion at home is possible, and that there are other women who can accompany them and will support them in this process.”
Red de Mujeres Jóvenes de Choluteca, Honduras
Honduras has a total ban on abortion. Even talking about it comes at great risk. The Young Women of Choluteca Network focuses on training, providing psychological or legal support, and organizing networks to defend sexual and reproductive rights.
The discussion is centralized in the capital of Tegucigalpa and the city of San Pedro Sula, but other regions are heavily controlled by the church. Education and training are key, yet doing the work put the 20 to 30 members of the group at great risk.
As part of Somos Muchas, a coalition of NGOs, they are working to have abortion under exceptional circumstances– like rape or serious threat to a woman’s life– decriminalized. Still, fundamentalist religious groups keep pushing their political agenda, while the pandemic and back-to-back hurricanes continue to drive more women into poverty.
“Much has been fought for the three circumstances. In Honduras, in fact, women abort for all three reasons, but also because of poverty and extreme poverty,” says Izaguirre.
Las Parceras, Colombia
In 2006, Colombia decriminalized abortion under the three circumstances. Still, access continues to be restricted.
Las Parceras is a lesbian feminist and abortion accompaniment network that has been offering educational and training courses since June 2017. They have accompanied at least 654 women through abortion, either at home or at the hospital.
“Our goal is that there are more women who can access a safe abortion without having to expose themselves to the risks that women face on a daily basis in a country that, although it’s not completely penalized, it does present different obstacles and violences within the institutional framework that make women run the risk of clandestine abortions,” explains Eliana Riaño.
Abortions are often performed clandestinely, and Las Parceras recognize that clandestine doesn’t necessarily mean unsafe. “Abortion can leave the hospital. It’s not necessary for it to be supervised by a doctor,” says Riaño. “Of course, there must be a person who knows how to carry out a medical abortion at home, but this is not an exclusive property of western medicine.”
Operação Milhas pela Vida das Mulheres, Brazil
When Operação Milhas pela Vida das Mulheres launched in September 2019, the mission was to assist women who couldn’t access abortion services in Brazil so they could do it in neighboring countries. With COVID-19 travel restrictions, the attention turned to guide women to places within the country where they could access their rights.
Under Brazil’s penal code, abortion is only allowed in cases of rape, health risk to the mother, or when the fetus has a fatal congenital brain disorder. However, there’s a lack of information about the law.
“We found that 90% didn’t know they had the right to legal abortion before contacting us,” explains Juliana Reis, founding member. “Today that data is 75%.”
Operação Milhas assists them to access the law. An estimated 1,500 women have requested for their help. Women often face social obstacles, such as stigma, or encounter medical staff who refuse to provide abortions because of their personal beliefs. Geography is also an obstacle since most clinics are located in urban centres. Under the excuse of the pandemic, Brazil has suspended many sexual and reproductive services.
“We say that it’s thanks to Bolsonaro. My own impulse is an impulse of resistance,” says Reiss. “With Bolsonaro, I think many people who preferred not to talk about abortion, today speak out because enough is enough.”
Photo courtesy of Instagram (@lasparcerascolombia).