Early on Dec. 30, Argentina became only the second democratic country in Latin America to legalize abortion. The Senate’s 38-to-29 vote on a bill passed by the legislature’s lower house was celebrated by masses of green-clad activists in the streets of Buenos Aires. In recent years, these activists have been mobilizing in larger and larger numbers for reproductive rights.

Abortion legalization failed in 2018. What changed?

In 2018, a similar bill was passed by Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies but came up short in the Senate. By 2020, advocates for legalization had President Alberto Fernández on their side; Fernández had defeated antiabortion incumbent President Mauricio Macri in 2019.

As two of us (Smith and Boas) argue in a new paper, efforts to reform abortion laws, even if initially unsuccessful, bring the issue to public attention and encourage politicians and voters to take sides.

For years, abortion had been considered politically untouchable. But the legislative debate in 2018 made it one of the most important issues in the 2019 presidential campaign. Each candidate weighed in, and when Fernández opened the new legislative session in early 2020, he promised to introduce a bill that would legalize abortion.

Research finds that countries are more likely to lift or loosen restrictions on abortion when a programmatic left party is in power. That would include Argentina’s Peronist party, the center-left anchor of its governing Frente de Todos (Everybody’s Front) coalition. Many journalistic accounts documented the government’s attempts to influence undecided senators, against countervailing efforts by Macri and leaders of the Catholic Church.

But abortion decriminalization passed in Argentina for reasons that go far beyond the president. While his coalition of supporters was more likely to support legalization than members of the opposition, the vote did not break neatly along party lines. Moreover, before 2015, Peronist governments held power for 12 years without introducing legislation regarding abortion rights.

So how did abortion only recently become a central political issue?

How a growing women’s movement put reproductive rights in the spotlight

In a forthcoming paper, two of us (Daby and Moseley) explain that a powerful new feminist social movement called Ni Una Menos (“Not one [woman] less”) spurred the abortion debate. In 2015, after several grisly murders of young women, Ni Una Menos was organized to call attention to gender violence and inspired thousands of Argentine women to take to the streets.

Linking previously scattered social movements, Ni Una Menos forged a diverse coalition of women to challenge the status quo. After beginning as a protest against machista violence, Ni Una Menos eventually broadened its claims to encompass reproductive rights. Feminist activists argued that without legal abortion, “ni una menos” would always be a misnomer, because unsafe, clandestine abortions represent one of the leading causes of maternal death in Argentina.

Ni Una Menos framed abortion as an issue of social justice and public health — rather than the United States’ framing, in which it is an individual right. Further, it emphasized that poor women in particular are likely to encounter dangerous conditions when seeking abortions; one popular chant at demonstrations has been: “The rich abort, the poor die.” That has changed the reproductive rights conversation.

Through persistent mobilization, female activists persuaded public officials and fellow citizens that the prohibition on abortion had failed — and that only legal access could address the serious public health crisis afflicting Argentine women, primarily those who are poor.

According to our analysis of public opinion data from the AmericasBarometer, citizen attitudes became more favorable toward legalization only after Ni Una Menos arrived on the scene in 2015, amid record rates of protest by women.

Implications for Latin America

To be sure, the abortion debate in the Americas has hardly been put to bed. Just as Roe v. Wade inaugurated the modern era of partisan sparring over abortion in the United States, this issue, and others related to gender and sexuality, may increasingly become a political battleground throughout the region.

In a working paper analyzing AmericasBarometer and Latinobarómetro public opinion data from across the region, Smith and Boas found that when abortion or same-sex marriage dominate the headlines, abortion rights or antiabortion attitudes start to matter more on election day. Traditionally, voters mostly worry about bread-and-butter issues when they go to the polls. But as candidates stake out opposing positions on new “culture war” issues, elections are being transformed. Championing abortion or same-sex marriage rights can pave the way to victory, but so can conservative opposition — as happened in Brazil’s 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro.

Argentina’s abortion legalization could have ripple effects throughout the Americas. On other social issues, significant legislative changes have tended to sweep through the region in relatively quick succession. After Argentina recognized same-sex marriages in 2010, Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay followed.

Abortion rights movements in other countries have already been buoyed by Argentina’s example. That’s in keeping with the country’s legacy as a leader in expanding human rights through its pioneering civilian trial of a 1970s military junta that committed terrorism against its own people; passage of legislative gender quotas, which made a significant difference in abortion legalization; and recent passage of transgender rights.

Of course, Argentina’s move may galvanize abortion opponents, as well. The Christian right has been jolted by the recent wave of change. And just as Ni Una Menos inspired activists in other countries, so, too, have conservative social movements. #ConMisHijosNoTeMetas (“Don’t Mess With My Children”), founded in Peru in 2016 to oppose feminist “gender ideology” in schools, has been spreading around the region, including to Argentina. In 2021, Chileans rewrite their constitution — and both leftist and rightist social movements at the convention are likely to lobby on sexuality politics.

If our research on Argentina is any indication, abortion rights advocates in other Latin American countries may have more success if they focus on the public health consequences of prohibition and its disproportionate impact on women living in poverty. Ultimately, abortion legalization in Argentina won because of the persuasive power of street activism. We expect that leftist and rightist social movements will be similarly critical in determining the future of abortion laws elsewhere in Latin America.

Taylor Boas (@TaylorBoas) is an associate professor of political science at Boston University and is the author of “Presidential Campaigns in Latin America: Electoral Strategies and Success Contagion” (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Mariela Daby (@marieladaby) is an associate professor of political science at Reed College and is the author of “Mobilizing Poor Voters: Machine Politics, Clientelism, and Social Networks in Argentina” (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Mason Moseley (@MasonMoseley21) is an assistant professor of political science at West Virginia University and is the author of “Protest State: The Rise of Everyday Contention in Latin America” (Oxford University Press, 2018) and “Life in the Political Machine: Dominant-Party Enclaves and the Citizens They Produce” (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Amy Erica Smith (@amyericasmith) is an associate professor of political science, a Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Professor at Iowa State University and a 2020-2022 Carnegie fellow. She is author of “Religion and Brazilian Democracy: Mobilizing the People of God” (Cambridge University Press, 2019).