Naomi Braine writes on the lessons, teachings, and inspiration that Latin American activists can offer us in this moment of crisis in the fight for reproductive justice.
This piece is published as part of We Organize to Change Everything, A collaboration between acclaimed socialist feminist magazine Lux and Verso. We Organize to Change Everything examines the fight for abortion from the 1970s to the present, bringing together the voices of clinic defenders, health care providers, and the networks of feminist activists helping pregnant people obtain care from Mississippi to Mexico. Contributors consider the intimate connection of abortion rights to forced sterilization and structural racism, incarceration and criminalization, Indigenous people’s sovereignty, transgender rights, and the growing threat of a white supremacist far right. Looking outside of the U.S. to the Americas, the collection shows how U.S. activists can draw inspiration, lessons, and strategy from the dynamic feminist movement across Central and South America.
Most importantly, this collection describes what a fighting movement for reproductive justice could look like—one that fights for the right to parent as we wish or not parent at all, and rejects the criminalization of anyone’s body.
The green bandana, el pañuelo verde, has crossed the southern border to enter the U.S. feminist lexicon as a symbol for abortion rights and bodily autonomy. In the wake of the leaked draft of the Supreme Court decision on Dobbs, the color green has been appearing in signs and banners at demonstrations in support of abortion and opposition to the rollback of Roe, as can be seen in this string of photos from a demonstration in New York City that includes a woman holding the iconic Argentinian pañuelo with “Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito” (Abortion legal, safe and free).
The green bandana is indeed an international symbol of abortion rights, one that emerges from the longstanding, militant, and increasingly successful struggles for abortion rights in Latin America. Over the last thirty years, the spread of self-managed medication abortion and the feminist movement to support women through the process led to decreasing maternal mortality from illegal abortion, despite extremely restrictive laws across the region. In the past five years, building on the work of the preceding decades, feminists throughout the region have won significant legal victories, including the legalization of abortion through fourteen weeks in Argentina, major court decisions decriminalizing abortion in Mexico and Colombia, and the ongoing transformation of Chile from a place where abortion was completely banned to one where access may be written into the new constitution.
The green bandana is not the only thing that feminists in the U.S. can learn—and are learning—from the struggles for abortion rights in the Global South, especially Latin America. Self-managed medication abortion (SMA), which is increasingly popular in the U.S. both through telemedicine and more autonomously by obtaining pills and instructions online, began in Brazil in the 1980s and ’90s, although many U.S. activists may not realize that. Here in the U.S., we can learn faster, adapt strategies from other places more effectively, and in the process build solidarity-based alliances across borders, if we intentionally recognize and draw on the experiences of feminists in the Global South. They have much to teach us, and we can learn from a place of respect and genuine collaboration, a dynamic already apparent within regional abortion networks across Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, where activists engage in ongoing processes of sharing knowledge, skills, and strategies
Starting in the early 2000s, activists across Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa developed grassroots, community-based strategies to share information about how to safely use medication for abortion and support people with unwanted pregnancies through the abortion process. The abortion hotline is the most basic and probably the most widely used way to provide information about SMA: there’s a telephone number that people can call to talk with someone about their situation, get information about SMA, and call back whenever they have questions. In Latin America, hotlines focus on primarily on abortion while in Africa they are often broader, nesting information about medication abortion within a larger array of sexual and reproductive health information. Accompaniment, or acompañamiento in Spanish, involves ongoing communication to accompany a pregnant person through the abortion process, from an initial conversation through sharing information about SMA to remaining in contact with the person through the abortion itself, usually with some follow-up afterwards. “Accompaniment” has gradually become a generalized description of the process of supporting someone through a self-managed medication abortion, whether in person or by phone, text, or email. Activist collectives around the world have developed the knowledge and experience needed to routinely accompany people through second-trimester abortions, although this requires more time and engagement for everyone involved than a first-trimester abortion.
Activists engage with this work from a place of solidarity and care, a commitment to accompany people through a process that for many elicits anxiety and uncertainty. Abortion outside the medical system has a dangerous reputation, especially in a place like the U.S. where the 1960s experience of back-alley quasi-surgical procedures lingers as the dark shadow of the near half-century of legal abortion within the medical system. Activists across the Global South work in collectives and NGOs to support and enable a very different experience, based on solidarity among people who may not know each other but commit to travel through a process together.
The work of these collectives and community-based NGOs has similarities to the work of doulas, who support people through pregnancies and sometimes through abortions as well. However, the activists who engage in this work are generally not reproductive health professionals, a fact central to both the power and the success of this movement globally. The requirements for becoming an acompañante involve the acceptance of feminist values and commitments, and attendance at many workshops, but the training is done within the collective and accompaniment is understood as a form of feminist direct action. That is, it is solidarity work that benefits all of us, rather than a service or a form of charity.
The phrase “direct action” may call up images of people blocking roads and doorways, nonviolently disrupting work on pipelines, occupying the offices of politicians, or perhaps super-gluing themselves to the corporate offices of an oil company or bank. The most common forms of direct action draw their power from a combination of visibility and disruption, often starting with a press release and ending in arrests, but the essence of direct action involves shared action to directly target injustice. Some direct actions are forms of civil disobedience, also commonly associated with media-oriented arrests, and it’s useful to remember that the core definition of ‘civil disobedience’ is the refusal to obey an unjust law. Breaking a law publicly can be an important form of protest, as with the Freedom Riders who refused to obey segregation laws on interstate transport, but the civil disobedience aspect lies in the refusal to follow the law, not in doing so publicly or in getting arrested. The Underground Railroad was an example of direct action and civil disobedience that was built on the ability to remain invisible to authority. Driving a woman from Texas to New Mexico to get an abortion became a vital form of civil disobedience in September of 2021, after the passage of SB8, and is much more effective as direct action when no one gets arrested or charged. Answering an abortion hotline is a form of feminist direct action, and accompanying an abortion combines direct action with solidarity-based support for someone else’s act of involuntary civil disobedience in having an abortion despite legal restrictions.
The U.S. has a long-standing reproductive health and justice crisis of limited access plus escalating criminalization that requires the broadest possible range of responses. We need doulas, midwives, telemedicine, online pharmacies, abortion funds—and, learning from our sisters in the South, we may need solidarity-based feminist collectives that offer information and support on medication abortion in a variety of different legal and social contexts, with swiftly changing laws. The internet and digital technologies open up possibilities for sharing support as well as information across distance, without the need for expensive travel. Aid Access will provide abortion medication through advance provision (meaning to have in case you need it in the future), and both Plan C and Ms. magazine offer ideas for how to get pills by mail in places where abortion telemedicine is banned. There are websites in Latin America that offer a wide range of tools, including step-by-step instructions for medication abortion, and a Kenya-based network has produced a practical guide to medication abortion.
A key starting point may be for those of us in the United States to realize that feminists across the Global South have developed strategies for supporting people with abortions in places where it is highly restricted or outright banned, have done so for years on the basis of solidarity rather than service, and have managed the potential legal risks involved. There is already a network of lawyers that stretches from Canada through the Southern Cone to share experience and strategies for supporting both activists and people who need abortions, including If/When/How in the U.S..
Perhaps it’s time for (more) U.S. feminists to join the regional networks of SMA activists who have been doing this work for a long time; there’s a lot to learn, experiences to share on all sides, and new possibilities for moving forward together from this place we now find ourselves.
Naomi Braine is a Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, CUNY. Prior to joining the faculty at Brooklyn, she worked in the non-profit research sector on issues of drug use and HIV and consulted for community based organizations and the New York State Department of Health. Her political and intellectual work addresses gender, sexuality, reproductive justice, wars on drugs and terror, and health and collective action, from an intersectional perspective. Her current work focuses on self-managed medication abortion as a social movement.