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DRCLAS Panel Explores Changing Abortion Politics in Modern Latin America

Experts discussed changing norms on abortion access in Latin America at a virtual panel hosted by Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.
Experts discussed changing norms on abortion access in Latin America at a virtual panel hosted by Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. By Santiago A. Saldivar
By Betsey I. Bennett and Paton D. Roberts, Contributing Writers

Experts discussed changing social, cultural, and political norms on abortion access in Latin America at a virtual panel hosted by Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies on Tuesday.

The panel — part of the Center’s Fall 2021 Tuesday Seminar Series — featured University of Sussex Research Fellow Camilla Reuterswärd, Mount Holyoke College Professor Cora Fernandez Anderson, and Harvard Sociology Professor Jocelyn Viterna, who spoke about abortion access in Mexico, Argentina, and El Salvador, respectively.

In Mexico, each of the country’s 32 states has jurisdiction over its abortion policies. The variation within the country — attributable to partisan politics and the strength of religious institutions — “largely mirrors” variations throughout Latin America, explained Reuterswärd.

“The intensity of electoral competition and the ideological positions of party rivals interact with the strength of the Catholic Church hierarchies in a given state to compel parties to pursue policy reform,” she said.

Despite a decision by the Mexican Supreme Court last month that criminalizing abortion is unconstitional, challenges to abortion access in Mexico remain, including enforcement and retaliation, which has occurred in the past, Reuterswärd said.

The decriminalization of abortion in Mexico City in 2007, for example, “ushered in a flurry” of right-to-life amendments in other states, she said.

In Argentina, lawmakers passed legislation in December 2020 that legalized abortion in the first 14 weeks of gestation. Fernandez Anderson lauded the nation’s prominant feminist activists as the “main force” behind the change.

“Activists really understood the party system and realized that they could take advantage of the fact that all the parties actually were divided on the issue of abortion,” she explained. “They began building this multiparty coalition, which was definitely much harder, it took much longer.”

“The emergence of a strong social movement around abortion reform was able to shift the negative perceptions associated with this practice,” Fernandez Anderson added.

In El Salvador, discussions about abortion did not begin until the 1990s, Viterna said. International influences — such as the politicization of abortion by Republicans in the United States — introduced anti-abortion language to the country, she explained.

In 1997, the nation’s criminal code banned abortion in every situation, and in 1999, a constitutional amendment defined life as beginning at conception.

With individual stories, Viterna demonstrated the tangible consequences of abortion bans. A pregnant woman who experienced abdominal pain and accidentally delivered her baby into a latrine was later accused of abortion — a charge that was escalated to attempted aggravated homicide and led to her serving 12.5 years in prison, she said.

“The reality is that life begins at conception in El Salvador, and if life begins at conception, then it’s really hard to tell the difference between abortion and murder, especially when abortion has no definition in the law,” Viterna said.

Following the presentations, Government professor and DRCLAS Director Steven Levitsky moderated a 30 minute question-and-answer session. Viterna noted the importance of social class in access to abortions as a caveat applicable to Mexico, Argentina, and El Salvador.

Future seminars in the series at DRCLAS will focus on populism, technocracy, and protest.

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PoliticsGovernmentLatin America