Mexico and Colombia recently legalized abortion in landmark rulings that offer a stark contrast to the Dobbs decision that overturned the right to the procedure in the U.S. A recent event at Harvard Law School looked at the three seismic legal shifts and produced insights that could, organizers say, yield lessons for the U.S. abortion rights movement.
Justices Alfredo Gutiérrez Ortiz Mena of the Supreme Court of Mexico and Natalia Ángel Cabo of the Colombian Constitutional Court last week laid out the factors that led to the rulings in their respective countries in a panel on reproductive justice sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.
In both Mexico and Colombia, the “Green Wave,” or Marea Verde, movement for abortion rights that began in Argentina in the early 2000s played a big role in the landmark rulings that decriminalized abortion, the panel said. The movement has campaigned for the right to legal, safe, and free abortions and captured the support of women and women’s organizations across Latin America, a heavily Roman Catholic region historically resistant to reproductive rights.
The women’s rights movement in Latin America is not new, said Alicia Ely Yamin, a lecturer on law and senior fellow in global health and rights at the Petrie-Flom Center, who introduced the speakers.
“The idea that this just happened in the last few years is also not quite right,” said Yamin, who is also an adjunct senior lecturer on health policy and management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Feminists in Latin America have been pushing for abortion rights since the 1970s, when feminists around the world began pushing for abortion rights.”
The legal victories began with Cuba, which legalized abortion in 1961, followed by Guyana in 1995, Uruguay in 2012, and Argentina in 2020. The Mexican Supreme Court ruled that criminal penalties for abortion were unconstitutional in 2021, and the next year the Colombian Constitutional Court legalized abortion up to 24 weeks after conception.
Yamin, who worked with women’s rights organizations in Mexico in the 1990s, learned from Marta Lamas, a leading feminist activist, that the women’s rights struggle was going to be gradual. “She said, ‘This is a marathon, not a sprint,’” said Yamin, “and that has proven to be true in Colombia and Mexico.”
In the case of Mexico, changes in both the constitution and the Supreme Court over the past 20 years reinforced societal changes in views about civil liberties and human rights. A key factor was the amendment of Article 1 of the Mexican Constitution in 2011, which stated that all individuals are entitled to the human rights granted by the constitution and international treaties signed by the Mexican state, said Gutiérrez Ortiz Mena. Women’s groups began asserting those rights to support their case for abortion rights.