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Ireland and Latin America Can Inspire the US Abortion Fight

For decades, activists across the world have looked to Roe v. Wade, the landmark US ruling on abortion, as a model worthy of emulation. With the Supreme Court now set to overturn that decision, roles need to reverse: US rights groups must now turn to successful campaigns in Latin America and in Ireland for inspiration and advice on mobilizing voters, galvanizing legislators and widening support.

The impact of these popular movements is hard to overestimate. The Latin American marea verde, or green wave, emerged in Argentina in response to high rates of violence against women with the Ni Una Menos campaign, or Not One Less, and mass street protests. It expanded to include a demand for legal and safe abortions, and took its name from the green scarves women began to wear — an echo of the white ones worn by the mothers of Plaza de Mayo, icons of resistance and social protest against dictatorship. It spread, and breakthroughs followed in Uruguay, Argentina itself, Mexico, Ecuador. Catholic and socially conservative Colombia has just decriminalized abortion during the first 24 weeks.

Ireland has been no less remarkable. In 1983, traditionalists and the Catholic Church pushed for a constitutional amendment on abortion to shield Ireland from the liberalizing forces at work in Britain and the United States; 67% of voters eventually backed the move to give equal rights to the mother and the unborn. A determined grassroots campaign turned that around with the help of a broad alliance, and in 2018 more than 66% voted to overturn the effective abortion ban in a referendum. There would be no more lonely journeys across the Irish Sea, the prime minister told a crowd as the result came through.

To some extent, links already exist between these efforts and those in the United States — collectives like Mexico’s Las Libres, for instance, plan to help women on the other side of the border. All these campaigns differ in their paths and tactics. And for almost all of them, the fight is not over: Countries like El Salvador still have highly restrictive laws in place. But at a time when US activists must turn an imminent defeat into a call to arms, learning from advocacy elsewhere is a matter of urgency.

One factor that stands out from all these movements is the need to place the conversation in the broader context of human rights. Abortion is not just about the right to decide. Given how abortion bans lead to unsafe terminations and preventable deaths, it’s about the mother’s right to life. And given how minorities and poorer women suffer disproportionately from restrictions, it’s about the right to freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and to freedom from discrimination, not to mention the right to privacy. The US government, for one, has recognized these rights in a variety of rulings and ways.

Irish campaigners took their fight to the European Court of Human Rights to make the point, with a landmark 2010 case that did not ultimately challenge the ban on abortion but did find Ireland violated the right to receive proper medical care in life-threatening cases — an important step in building momentum, in part because of the subsequent death in 2012 of Savita Halappanavar, who was denied an abortion even as she miscarried. In Colombia, the Causa Justa movement explicitly argued that criminalizing abortion violated the right to health, equality and freedom of conscience for women and healthcare providers. It also discriminated: In 2013, a third of the women in Colombia who had clandestine abortions had complications requiring medical care, but among rural women in poverty it was more than half.

The constitutional court ruled in their favor, reinforcing an instrumental argument in winning over centrists unconvinced by arguments around individual choice. As Ximena Casas of Human Rights Watch put it to me, in Colombia, as in Mexico, rulings leaned on arguments not present in Roe — but rooted in human rights and protected in their respective constitutions. 

Another effective tactic has been to make the discussion less about abstract women, and more about familiar, real people. In 2018, the Irish referendum campaign used personal stories and ordinary families’ testimonies to great effect, under the slogan “Who needs your Yes?”, which had the added power of putting women in the context of their relationships, as ordinary mothers and daughters. Other efforts to encourage kitchen-table conversations like “In Her Shoes,” a volunteer drive that gathered anonymous stories and posted them with pictures of the person’s shoes, helped. Despite early polls suggesting general discomfort around the topic, after the vote nearly two-fifths cited discussions with family, friends or on social media as influencing their decision. 

High-profile cases can nuance the debate by making even those averse to terminations recognize that it can be necessary — but normalization is vital. As Christine Ryan of the Global Justice Center argues, most abortion cases are not extreme; legislating only for the exceptions risks leaving many people behind, and abortion outside normal reproductive healthcare. Another risk is that only those who elicit our compassion are seen as deserving of this freedom. “Women shouldn’t need to make us cry to have their rights respected,” Ryan says.

Both in Latin America and in Ireland, language choices helped to break down taboos. Avoiding heavily charged words (including abortion), campaigns have focused on the voluntary interruption of pregnancy as a medical procedure. Ireland’s was notable for its emphasis on hope. Its “Together for Yes” campaign featured slogans like “Sometimes a private matter needs public support” and advertisements that called to mind unifying national events, encouraging voters to drive change. The Niñas No Madres campaign in Latin America sought to shield young girls by encouraging the girls to be seen as just that — children.

Finally, all of these movements have made progress by going far beyond traditional supporters, building alliances across social, religious and regional divides. Powerful imagery like the green scarves spread across Latin America and beyond, providing encouragement and fostering a sense of common cause. Argentinian campaigners — facing a diverse and vast country, much like their US counterparts — effectively spread the word beyond big cities, using not activists but local doctors as trusted voices, with Salvemos Miles de Vidas. In Ireland and in Northern Ireland, trade unions have been brought onside too, framing abortion as crucial to women’s social and economic advancement — and therefore an issue relevant to the workplace, and to men.

Nor did these coalitions leave out religious groups, embracing Catholic concerns with movements like Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir, which emphasize the Church’s commitment to social justice, the role of conscience and the right to decide. It’s a crucial piece of the puzzle for the United States, where the anti-abortion movement claims religion and glosses over the differences in opinion among religious groups, even within Christianity, while Judaism does not share the belief that life begins at conception. The National Council of Jewish Women has spoken out against the assault on abortion access.

From Bogota to Dublin, there have been many other factors at stake, like the advent of medication abortion or wider social change. But it’s clear that broad-based campaigns, with smart strategies and judicial tactics have worked — and can do so again. More From This Writer and Others at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Before Roe Falls, Congress Must Stand Up: Michael Bloomberg

• Abortion Pills Pushed Ireland Pro-Choice: Clara Ferreira Marques

• More Employers Should Cover Abortion Travel: Sarah Green Carmichael

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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