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What the U.S. can learn from abortion rights wins in Latin America

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tens of thousands of bright green handkerchiefs flooded the streets of Latin American cities over the last few years. This green wave is the mass movement to expand reproductive rights in the region.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

CHANG: And it's a movement that is working. The region has historically had restrictive abortion laws, but in the last two years, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia have decriminalized or fully legalized abortion. Other neighboring countries like Chile could be next. Now with federal abortion protections in the U.S. gone, reproductive rights advocates in the U.S. may be looking to their counterparts in Latin America for inspiration and strategy. Maria Antonieta Alcalde is the director of Ipas in Central America and Mexico. It's an organization that promotes safe and legal abortion access around the world. She joins us now from Mexico City. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MARIA ANTONIETA ALCALDE: Thank you very much, Ailsa. It's a pleasure being here.

CHANG: Well, you know, as we mentioned, many countries in Latin America had restrictive abortion laws on their books for decades, including complete bans in some places. What do you think is working in the Latin American reproductive rights movement now?

ALCALDE: I think that one of the lessons that we can share with the American movement is the importance to have room for the different expression. The green movement is a very inclusive movement because you don't have to be part of a political party, you don't have to be part of any specific organization. You don't have to donate. You just have to be out there, wear your green scarf and to help women to have access to information about safe and legal abortion.

CHANG: That's so interesting. The movement doesn't feel partisan.

ALCALDE: It's not. It's not, of course. I mean, like, a lot of political parties are trying to get closer to the movement, but it's not related with a political party. It's not even related with any specific brand or organization.

CHANG: I know that you have been doing this work for a long, long time now. What has it felt like for you personally to be there now and now only recently watching this massive shift?

ALCALDE: For me, it's really exciting living these times in Latin America because we are really harvesting, like, the work that we had put in the movement different from what you would used to see in the past. Now, due to abortion with pills, women can have access even within context of illegality. So it's exciting to be able to give some hope to people that cannot wait for the laws to change because they need support right now. And the movement in the U.S. that for many years was the aspiration for many of us and now to be able to see that what we have built in Latin America could also be useful for our sisters in the U.S. is - it is inspiring.

CHANG: Well, now much of the U.S. is returning to restrictive abortion access. But in Mexico, where you live, for example, have you seen that greater access to abortions has translated into more abortions happening?

ALCALDE: Not at all. In the case of Mexico and in most countries in Latin America that is different from the U.S. that we have a public health system. So in the case of Mexico City, women can have access abortion for free because the government has the obligation to provide health care to its - to everyone, not only to the citizens. And what we have learned is that the decriminalization of abortion actually reduced the need of women to have access. Because when you legalize abortion, you can provide comprehensive services to women. Women do not only receive a very good quality of service to interrupt the pregnancy, but they also receive, for example, counseling in the case that they are facing a situation of violence.

So most of the women that come to a clinic for an abortion leave that clinic not only with the abortion but also with a contraceptive, like an implant. If their partners come with them, they even offer vasectomies for their partners. So when you are able to provide a legal abortion in the public health system, you address the needs of the most vulnerable people. And you are able to offer comprehensive services that will prevent them to come back one or two more times with an unwanted pregnancy. So, actually, legalizing abortion reduced the need for an abortion. And that's what we have seen very clearly.

CHANG: That's so interesting. People who - on either side of the abortion debate in the U.S. have told us that they have seen the overturning of Roe v. Wade coming for years and years. Where do you think the abortion rights movement failed in the U.S.?

ALCALDE: Oh, I think that - I mean, there is, of course, not only a fail of the movement, there are other elements to consider. But I think maybe the first part is that the U.S. movement, it's very isolated. I mean, if you think about the abortion movement or the sexual and reproductive health and rights movement in the world, we're very united. I mean, like, the green wave, it's an expression of that. It's not the Argentinian movement or the Colombia or the Chilean. It's - like it's all together while the U.S. movement has always been very isolated. Maybe the other element is like this is a movement that it is - a big part of their strength is based on big organizations. You have very big national organizations that, of course, play a very significant role. But in a way, they control the narrative and they control the movement.

CHANG: You're talking about here in the U.S.

ALCALDE: Here in the U.S. and I'm talking, of course, about Planned Parenthood or, like, even the Center for Reproductive Rights. And in that way, you become a very easy target. So it's not about the access to abortion. It's about Planned Parenthood. I think that that had hindered the organization because there are other ways, other expressions of the movement that hasn't been able - including expressions from the Latina movement, including expression from the African American movement that hasn't been that strong within this model of big organizations being the movement.

CHANG: Maria Antonieta Alcalde of Ipas, an organization that focuses on safe and legal access to abortions, thank you very much for your time again.

ALCALDE: It is my pleasure to be here. Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.