MEXICO CITY/BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Several weeks pregnant and about to start a job away from home, Lupita Ruiz had no doubts about wanting to end her pregnancy, despite knowing she could face jail time for having an abortion under a law in her state of Chiapas in southern Mexico.
She asked friends for help until she found a doctor two hours from her town who agreed to do it in secret.
Five years later, lawmakers in Chiapas are set to consider an initiative to halt prosecutions of women who terminate their pregnancies, part of a movement sweeping Latin America to loosen some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws.
Several out of more than 20 Latin American nations ban abortion outright, including El Salvador, which has sentenced some women to up to 40 years in prison. Most countries, including Brazil, the region’s most populous, allow abortion only in specific circumstances, such as rape or health risk to the mother.
Just Uruguay and Cuba allow elective abortions.
In Mexico, a patchwork of state restrictions apply, but the debate is shifting, Ruiz said.
“When someone talked about abortion, they were shushed,” said the 27-year-old activist, who helped draft the Chiapas initiative. “Now I can sit down to eat a tamale and have a coffee and talk with my mom and my grandma about abortion, without anyone telling me to be quiet.”
Change is palpable across the predominantly Roman Catholic region. A new Argentine president proposed legalization last month, Chilean activists are aiming to write broader reproductive rights into a new constitution, and female lawmakers in Mexico are resisting abortion bans.
The push can be traced to Argentina’s pro-abortion protests in 2018 by as many as one million women to back a legalization bill that only narrowly failed to pass - in Pope Francis’s home country.
Catalina Martinez, director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy organization, said Argentina’s example inspired protests across Latin America.
“It was an awakening,” she said.
Outrage at worsening gender violence in Latin America, where the number of femicides has doubled in five years, has also spread awareness of the abortion rights movement and fueled demands for recognition of women’s rights in a conservative, male-dominated society.
“Women are finally understanding that they are not separate issues,” said Catalina Calderon, director for campaigns and advocacy programs at the Women’s Equality Center. “It’s the fact that you agree that we women are in control of our bodies, our decisions, our lives.”
The rise of social media has afforded women opportunities to bypass establishment-controlled media and bring attention to their stories, Calderon said.
“Now they’re out there for the public to discuss and for the women to react, and say: ‘This does not work. We need to do something’,” Calderon said.
As in the United States, where conservatives have made gains in restricting a woman’s right to an abortion, there is pushback in Latin America against the calls for greater liberalization.
Brazil, under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, is making it even harder for women to abort.
The Argentine Episcopal Conference has said it does not want to debate abortion during the coronavirus crisis, and alluded to comments by the Pope urging respect for those who are “not yet useful,” including fetuses.
Yet trust in the Catholic Church, which believes life begins at conception, is fading, with many Latin Americans questioning its moral legitimacy because of sexual abuse by priests.
SPREADING ‘GREEN WAVE’
Argentina could be first up for sweeping change, with a bill submitted to Congress by center-left President Alberto Fernandez seeking to legalize elective abortions.
Approval for legalization has risen eight percentage points since 2014, according to an August Ipsos poll, with support split nearly evenly between those who favor elective abortion and those who are for it only in certain circumstances.
“The dilemma we must overcome is whether abortions are performed clandestinely or in the Argentine health system,” Fernandez said.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a U.S.-based reproductive health research organization, an estimated 29% of pregnancies in Latin America and the Caribbean from 2015 to 2019 ended in abortion, encompassing 5.4 million women. The abortions are often clandestine, so figures are hard to determine.
The mass demonstrations in Argentina two years ago, known as the “green wave” protests, have reverberated.
Since mid-2018, lawmakers in Mexico have filed more than 40 proposals to end punishment for abortion, according to Mexican reproductive rights group GIRE.
In Chiapas, the de-criminalization effort is the first of its kind since a brief period in the 1990s when abortion was legalized during the left-wing Zapatista rebellion.
Although Chiapas does not on paper punish abortion with prison, it can jail women for the “killing” of their infants.
With Mexico’s first leftist government in a century in power, national lawmakers are considering two initiatives to open up restrictions and strip away criminal punishments from places like Sonora state, where abortion can be punished by up to six years in prison.
Only two federal entities, Mexico City and Oaxaca, allow elective abortions.
Wendy Briceno, a Sonoran lawmaker who has backed a nationwide legalization bill, said the initiatives have a good chance to pass if the debate centers on women’s health, especially given rising outrage over femicides.
In Chile, activists are celebrating a vote in October to write a new constitution as a chance to expand a 2017 law that permitted abortion to save a mother’s life, in cases of rape, or if the fetus is not viable.
Colombia, where the constitutional court has agreed to consider a petition to remove abortion from the penal code, could set an example, said Anita Pena, director of Chilean reproductive rights group Corporacion Miles.
Activists agree there is still a long way to go, with restrictive laws entrenched in many countries.
To Briceno, Brazil’s shift to the right under Bolsonaro, who has vowed to veto any pro-abortion bills, was a reminder to push even harder for abortion rights.
“No fight is ever finished,” she said.
Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City, Cassandra Garrison in Buenos Aires, Natalia Ramos in Santiago; Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Vatican City; editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Grant McCool
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