FERNANDO RAMÍREZ/COURTESY OF DAMARIS ABARCA’S PRESS TEAM
Chess champion Damaris Abarca sits on a constituent assembly in Chile that is rewriting the constitution and may enshrine reproductive rights in the charter.
Damaris Abarca is a Chilean chess master who has been honing her strategy with knights and bishops since she was a child. She has won four national championships since 2010, emerging as one of the top players in Latin America.
Today, the 30-something is determined to transfer her skills from the chessboard to another complicated arena – politics. She sits at the center of a historic effort in Chile to ease the country’s strict abortion laws.
The leap between the worlds of rooks and reproductive rights isn’t all that far, according to the first female president of the Chilean Chess Federation. She once cited the queen, or “la dama” in Spanish, in an opinion piece to justify Chilean women’s right to choose, which had been taken away during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. “She is the most powerful player … able to move freely across the board,” Ms. Abarca wrote.
Why We Wrote This
Abortion rights in the U.S. are teetering at the Supreme Court. The trends are decidedly different in Latin America. Ahead of International Women’s Day, the Monitor looks at what’s fueling global perspectives.
Now Chile, which currently criminalizes abortion except in three strict cases, could legalize the procedure in all circumstances in the first trimester – and Ms. Abarca could be a major player in that change. The Olympic chess competitor and mother of one sits on a constituent assembly rewriting Chile’s Constitution. The assembly is composed of equal representation of men and women and could ultimately enshrine reproductive rights in the charter.
“Many women [in the constitutional assembly] share feminist proposals, one being sexual and reproductive rights to pave the way for legal abortion,” says Ms. Abarca, a leader in the assembly’s fundamental rights committee.
Chile’s possible loosening of abortion restrictions mirrors a trend in much of the rest of the world. While people in the United States are preoccupied with the prospect of the Supreme Court rolling back access to abortions that American women secured in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, many countries are liberalizing their abortion laws.
Over the past three decades, 60 countries have loosened restrictions, while three have tightened abortion access – Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Poland – according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.
“They’re expanding rights when [the U.S. is] retracting them,” says Jamie Manson, president of the U.S.-based Catholics for Choice.
The varied actions on abortion around the world are also sharpening a deeper debate: Can you have women’s rights without reproductive rights? For the most part, gains in reproductive rights have broadly been interpreted as part of the slow march toward women’s equality globally. They’re often mentioned alongside initiatives to increase labor force participation, close gender pay gaps, boost educational opportunities, and curb violence against women. But now the U.S. in particular could send a different message about whether abortion and women’s equality go hand in hand.
As the court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization nears in June, which could uphold a Mississippi ban on abortion after 15 weeks, abortion opponents argue that women don’t need the procedure as much as they did during the push for reproductive rights in the 1960s and 1970s. That’s because they have made so many other gains since then – from access to contraception to advances in the workplace.
But as feminists across the world look on, they say reproductive rights are not just central to women’s rights – they go beyond them. From Latin America to Eastern Europe, reproductive rights are framed as more than just a feminist cause: They are a class and social justice issue as well. Among activists in Chile and Poland, in fact, they are seen as an essential part of transitions to more democratic societies.
A half-century after the Roe decision, abortion has largely remained out of reach for women in Latin America. But in the past 10 years, it has been a core issue of feminist movements in the region.
In 2015, thousands of women marched to denounce gender violence across Latin America as part of the internet-born movement #NiUnaMenos, which merged with demands for abortion rights. Millions of women donned green scarves, which have since become an international symbol of the global fight for reproductive rights.
The legal landscape in Latin America has shifted significantly in the past two years. In February, the Constitutional Court of Colombia voted to decriminalize abortion up to 24 weeks. In 2020, Argentina fully legalized abortion in the first 14 weeks, after Uruguay in 2012. Last year, the Mexican Supreme Court decriminalized the procedure in a landmark decision after Mexico City and various states had passed legislation allowing abortion in the first trimester. Now Chile could move in a direction that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.
In 1973, the same year Roe was decided, Pinochet staged a bloody coup in Chile – putting the country on the opposite track as the U.S. The conservative dictator’s new constitution, in 1980, laid the foundation for making abortion illegal. It remained banned in all cases until 2017.
On the surface, women in Chile seemed to make important gains without having reproductive rights. The country elected its first woman as president, Michelle Bachelet, in 2006. She was elected again in 2014.
But for Maria Antonieta Saa, who fought as a feminist under the Pinochet regime, Ms. Bachelet’s election did not represent how far women had gone. Instead, it symbolized just the beginning of a push for equality in a country where divorce was only legalized in 2004. It was under Ms. Bachelet’s tenure that access to abortion was finally granted in three cases: the rape of a woman, if the mother’s health were at risk, or if a fetus wouldn’t survive.
For Ms. Saa, who served as a mayor and congresswoman, access to abortion is not just about women’s rights but about the transition of Chile away from autocratic rule. “[Prohibiting] abortion in Chile is anti-democratic;
it comes from an authoritarianism that has cost the lives of women,” she says.
Momentum might be on her side. In December Chileans chose a new president, Gabriel Boric, a young leftist who campaigned on a feminist platform, over a conservative who wanted to return to a full ban on abortion. Mr. Boric has already named a female-majority Cabinet: Fourteen of his 24 ministers are women, many of whom sported green scarves at the Cabinet unveiling.
The issue remains divisive. In November, a bill to decriminalize abortion was dismissed in the Chilean Congress. In an Ipsos poll ahead of that decision, 73% of people in the country said they generally supported abortion – 41% approving of it in all cases and 32% under certain circumstances.
But like in the U.S., surveys don’t always capture the nuance of people’s views. Natalia Borquez is a dental surgeon in Santiago who has worked hard to secure her financial independence. She describes herself as a feminist who cares about reducing gender pay gaps and fighting violence against women. She’d like to show her support at the March 8 International Women’s Day marches, but she expects the green scarves will be omnipresent, and she supports the three-rule exception on abortion. “Unfortunately in Chile, if you’re a feminist, you need to be in favor of abortion,” she says. “If not, you’re not a feminist,” she says.
Her views on the issue are not rooted in religion. She does not identify as Roman Catholic. Instead they are informed by her experience as a survivor of sexual assault by a priest when she was a child, she says. A major reason that Ms. Borquez, traditionally conservative, gave her vote to Mr. Boric was because she didn’t want to return to an outright ban on abortion. “I agree with the three exceptions, so maybe I sound like I’m contradicting myself when I say life comes first. But, maybe it is because I am a sexual abuse survivor, and I can understand that a person who has been raped does not want to mother a rapist’s child,” she says.
Ms. Abarca, the chess player, believes that the new constitution, which will replace Pinochet’s 1980 charter, can reconcile increasing reproductive liberties – enshrining abortion as a fundamental right – while continuing to protect “the life to be born.” “None of us [feminists] believes that life is not valuable,” she says.
The assembly’s proposals consider all people as “the owners of their reproductive and sexual rights,” which includes the right to “make informed decisions over their body.” This, the feminist drafters believe, should be “guaranteed by the state without any discrimination.” They argue this will have the biggest impact on poor women – those who can’t access abortion elsewhere when it’s made illegal.
The World Health Organization estimates that 75% of abortions performed in Latin America are unsafe.
Rhetoric around poverty and the ability to afford access to abortions represent a pivot point between American attitudes on the issue and one other part of the world – Europe. It’s the reason views first diverged in the two regions in the late 19th century, according to Anna Peterson, an associate professor of history at Luther College in Iowa. It’s why the debate looks so different on opposite sides of the Atlantic today.
On paper, the U.S. is generally more permissive on reproductive rights than most countries: Abortion is allowed in some states to viability of the fetus, or about 23 to 24 weeks. Only about a dozen countries, including China and North Korea, allow abortions on demand that late. Cutoffs in Europe are usually in the first trimester, although broad exceptions are granted.
And access on the Continent is far more inclusive than it is in the U.S. In many European countries abortion is not only legal and uncontroversial but also funded by the state.
Europeans moved decades ago to embed abortion services into health care systems, while the American medical community, influenced by a religious right, didn’t embrace it in mainstream medicine. That gave rise to the abortion clinic model that has made reproductive services the center of so much protest and violence.
“The free-standing clinics have just made abortion providers sitting ducks,” says Carole Joffe, professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.
And that has put feminist movements on different paths as well. In the 1960s, leading up to Roe v. Wade, it was possible to be part of American women’s movements without publicly staking a position on abortion, says Kelsy Kretschmer, an associate sociology professor at Oregon State University who has studied early feminist groups. “There was a period of ‘Maybe we can just agree to disagree. Maybe this issue won’t be that important in five years,’” she says.
But that became untenable leading up to and after Roe. Today, as the ruling in the Dobbs case nears, “pro-life feminism,” one that seeks to appeal to younger generations who care not just about limiting abortion but about broadening women’s equality, has once again gained space in the American feminist movement. Their ideas are shared by a group of elected officials who have pushed laws to restrict abortion access in many states. The fight against Roe is led by Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, rallying around the slogan “Empower Women. Promote Life.”
Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life, says her organization, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this spring, has spent three decades providing young activists with what she calls “pro-woman answers to pro-choice questions.” “This awareness of this injustice against women has resulted in a new wave of pro-life feminists who refuse to choose between women and children or feeling forced to sacrifice either their education and career plans or their families,” she writes in an email.
Such conversations don’t exist in much of Europe. Ms. Manson of Catholics for Choice recalls a recent panel talk in Germany she took part in on transgender rights. At one point, she delved into abortion because the two are intimately connected, she says. “And these Europeans are like, ‘Why are you going on about [abortion]?’” It’s not that anti-abortion sentiment, religious or moral, doesn’t exist in Europe. But abortion is not a wedge issue – and is seen as a topic that goes well beyond a woman’s choice.
“It is not only an issue of gender equality, but also an issue of class equality,” says Dr. Peterson. “By tying abortion to a much larger
issue that affects all classes, races, and genders, I think a greater swath of Western European populations see themselves as having a stake in abortion access.”
And that’s why the moves in Poland have caused such ripples across the Continent.
On a cold, grim January evening, candles and lights flicker in windows across Poland – in support of a woman, Agnieszka T., who had died the night before. She was a young mother of three in her 30s, pregnant with twins. She fell ill, and her family took her to a hospital in her local town of Częstochowa.
The heartbeat of one of the fetuses had stopped. But doctors wouldn’t perform an abortion. While an investigation is underway, her family blames a court ruling that went into effect last year that outlawed abortion in the case of fetal deformation. Since those cases accounted for nearly all legal abortions performed in Poland, it effectively ushered in a full ban in the country at the heart of the European Union.
The Constitutional Tribunal ruling last year sparked some of the biggest protests in the country since the fall of communism. Marta Lempart, who organized the demonstrations and co-founded the Polish Women’s Strike, says the conservative ruling party’s move to rein in abortion has backfired in this deeply Catholic country.
In 1973, when Poland was under communist rule, women had freer access to abortion in the country than almost anywhere else in the world. These rights were not so much a mark of women’s advancement, however, but a pragmatic tool. Working women boosted the labor force. Women in the Soviet Union would get abortions whether legal or not, so Soviet officials decided it was better to have them done safely.
In fact, during the communist era, the feminist movement was portrayed as the creation of a corrupt West. “Crèches [child care centers], the issue of combining work and motherhood, maternity leave – all these things were available to Polish women under socialism,” says Katarzyna Wężyk, a Polish journalist and author of “Abortion Is,” which gives voice to women who had an abortion.
After the fall of communism, political elites and the Catholic Church penned a “compromise law” in 1993 restricting abortion to cases of rape, saving a woman’s life, or if the fetus had a severe diagnosis.
“Polish feminism was born in battles over the anti-abortion law,” says Ms. Wężyk.
Still, for years the compromise law was accepted by the majority of society – even after Poland joined the EU in 2004. Abortion was stigmatized, including by liberal media. In 2015, the conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) won power, appealing to conservatives, especially in the Polish countryside, as well as people disillusioned with the economy. PiS has cracked down on democracy – and put ultra-Catholic values at the center of its vision of the state.
But now opinions are shifting on abortion, even among some PiS supporters. In a November 2021 poll, some 64% of Poles said they supported abortion under certain conditions, up from 52% a year earlier.
The main opposition party, Civic Platform, once stood against liberalization of abortion laws, but in protest of PiS has joined the fight to legalize it in the first trimester. Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, a former PiS education official who has now joined Civic Platform, believes in liberalizing the country’s abortion law but also supports a broad array of reproductive rights. She doesn’t want to return to the 1980s when abortion was used as a form of contraception.
“There are no full rights for women without access to abortion,” she says. “But this right should go together with the right to sex education, availability of contraceptives, the day-after pill, and various social support measures when a woman wants to have a child.”
Last summer, the EU challenged PiS by passing a resolution stating that interferences with abortion access by any member state “constitute breaches of human rights.”
Ms. Lempart says this framework is part of an awakening in Polish society. “When communism fell, we built our democracy based on free media, free judiciary, free elections. But we never paid any attention to human rights,” she says. “We’ve never acknowledged that this is important; we’ve never put any safety measures around this. That’s why it was easy for this government to destroy it.”
But she warns that sudden restrictions on abortion could happen anywhere.
No one knows that better than Joy Bennett. She was born into an evangelical family and as a child used to picket outside abortion clinics. This fall she found herself gathering signatures for a referendum to overturn a municipal ban on abortion that her City Council in Mason, Ohio, passed.
It’s the kind of policy that has increasingly been adopted across Southern and Midwestern states in recent years. About 30 restrictions on abortion have been put in place in Ohio in the past 10 years alone, according to Pro-Choice Ohio. And the state is a testing ground for a divided America. About half of U.S. states are preparing laws that would ban or severely restrict abortion statewide if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned.
Ms. Bennett’s views on abortion evolved slowly – at college as her worldview expanded but especially after she and her husband had a baby diagnosed with congenital heart defects at birth who died at age 8. Later, she took a job in family advocacy at the children’s hospital in Cincinnati, where she became aware of many people’s experiences.
“Abortion becomes an option on the table when something’s gone wrong. And it’s a really, really hard decision in many cases. And I think that when we make it a really simplistic, moral choice, we show tremendous disrespect and naiveté for the situations that people are in every day,” says the mother, whose faith was tested again when she was pregnant with a fourth child diagnosed in utero with a heart defect. “When I shared my story [in Mason], I said when I sat in that room with the doctors and my husband, the last thing that I should have to think and wonder is, ‘What would the City Council think?’”
That public political divide, she says, fails to capture the nuance of human experience like her own. According to Pew’s most recent polling, 59% of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 39% say it should be illegal in all or most cases. And yet, views are malleable when it comes to individual lives. A new study published in Science Advances shows that more than half of Americans opposed to abortion would help a loved one who needed one.
Bottom of Form
Ms. Bennett is a testament to the gains women have made over her lifetime: A busy working mother, she’s now running for office in Ohio state elections. In her mind, those advances don’t mean women need less access to abortion. “I would love to see abortion happening much less often,” says Ms. Bennett, who also understands the faith perspective. “I am pro-woman, and I am also pro-family and pro-baby.
“But the data shows that since Roe v. Wade was brought in, the number of abortions in our country has dropped by a significant percentage. … So I look at that and go, ‘OK, improving our access to contraceptives and birth control works to reduce the number of abortions; improving our access to health care and to child care and destigmatizing having a baby whether you’re married or not, all of those things have worked to reduce the number of abortions. This is how you do it.”