Lessons from Uruguayan feminists

“The fight never ends. We have to always be vigilant,” said Uruguayan feminist Lilián Abracinskas, when I spoke with her on July 19. I’ve known Lilián for over 20 years, and had the privilege of partnering with her organization, Mujer y Salud en Uruguay (“Woman and Health in Uruguay”) or MYSU , when I was at the International Women’s Health Coalition. Uruguay is a small country in South America, but it has been influential across Latin America in social policy over the last 15 years—notably by liberalizing abortion in 2012 and legalizing cannabis and same-sex marriage in 2013. As a gender and women’s health expert, journalist, feminist and social justice leader, Lilián was and continues to be an inspiration to progressive forces across the continent and beyond.

Learning from Lilián’s fierce feminist vision!

Lilián and I reflected on those successes, what it took to achieve them, and the backlash now gaining strength in Uruguay. The liberalization of the abortion law in 2012 in Uruguay was the result of a long struggle that brought together various movements to demand change. Mind you, the 2012 law was not what feminists had wanted, that is, a total decriminalization of abortion. It kept abortion under criminal law, except when performed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy (14 weeks in case of a rape that has been reported to the authorities, with no gestational limit in cases of danger to the pregnant person’s health, or of severe fetal anomalies). Pregnant persons must undergo a consultation with a committee of three health professionals, including a psychologist. A five-day waiting period is mandated before the abortion can ultimately take place. Only gynecologists can carry out the procedure or prescribe abortion pills, a medically unnecessary requirement.

The patronizing, patriarchal, excessively medicalized dimensions of this drawn-out approach are obvious. I vividly remember the disappointment that Uruguayan feminists felt when these provisions made it into the law in a last-minute legislative compromise. Yet, barely six months later, right-wing forces sought to overturn the new law by initiating a public consultation, a pre-referendum process provided for in the national constitution. “So, there we were, now defending that law!” Lilián chuckled. Fortunately, the right was handed a resounding defeat: “They lost, BADLY,” with only 8% of voters supporting the proposal for a referendum.

Lilián attributed that massive loss to the power of cultural change. The public conversation and understanding of abortion had changed significantly in the years prior to 2012, as a result of the relentless campaigning by feminists, allied with other social movements. Indeed, an earlier post-liberalization study  showed that most Uruguayan women felt that abortion was their right. “There was an ‘Orange Wave’ in Uruguay before there was a ‘Green Wave’ elsewhere,” noted Lilián.

Activists marching in 2012 in Uruguay

Ten years on, abortion services are available in the Uruguayan public health system, free of charge. No one dies of unsafe abortions anymore, and maternal mortality in Uruguay is low, second only to Canada in the Americas. But access can still be problematic, since the 2012 law allowed gynecologists to refuse to provide abortion services for personal or religious reasons. In some provinces of Uruguay, almost all of them have declared they cannot perform abortions, forcing pregnant persons to drive far to obtain services. Lilián recounted cases where anti-abortion doctors have told pregnant women that an ultrasound showed they were past 12 weeks, when they were not. And because abortion remains a crime if performed outside the legal parameters, women can still be charged with illegal abortion. Lilián described the recent story of a young woman who could face 17 years in prison. She terminated her pregnancy with pills after having been told she was 20 weeks along, and has been charged withmanslaughter. Such severe sentencing is common in the few countries that completely ban abortion, such as Salvador, but had been exceedingly rare in Uruguay. MYSU is following the case closely and working with the public defender to get the young woman released from pre-trial detention. The judge has so far refused to let her out, claiming there is “a risk she could kill her other children…” (You read that right).

The atmosphere is changing, says Lilián. A right-wing coalition won the elections in 2019, in a very tight race. The new president, Luis Lacalle Pou, of the National Party, has stated that he has “a pro-life agenda .” While he and his coalition partners are not openly discussing a reopening of the law, they are busy passing other bills to stigmatize abortion and affect women’s rights in other ways. “They are getting smarter about how they conduct the backlash. It’s now more subtle, and harder to fight against,” noted Lilián. They’ve proposed and passed bills on free-of-charge epidural anesthesia for extraction of a dead fetus, burial ceremonies for fetuses, mandatory shared custody of children in cases of divorce, and conscientious objection, among others.

“All this is to bring back the ‘family-nation-property’ conservative point of view. They are pro-natalists. They want to reposition women as mothers, first and foremost,” notes Lilián. Right-wing groups have also become vocal in actively denouncing the so-called gender ideology of feminist and LGBTQ movements (discussed in my January 17, 2022 Digest, and in the context of Brazil, in my January 31, 2022 Newsletter ), agitating for a return to traditional gender roles while painting women as liars when it comes to rape and domestic violence.

I asked Lilián who was behind these right-wing groups, given the very secular character of Uruguay. She replied that, while neo-Pentecostal groups had been active in positioning gender ideology as the umbrella for organizing disparate right-wing forces, the backlash is really driven by a Catholic-military-oligarchic political alliance. The most important actor in this respect is the Cabildo Abierto  (“Open Town Hall”), a political party led by a scandal-ridden former commander in chief of the Uruguayan military, Guido Manini Ríos. The Cabildo Abierto is part of Lacalle Pou’s Cabinet, where it holds the key position of Health Minister.

Uruguay suffered through a brutal military dictatorship from 1973 to 1985, so the rise of the Cabildo Abierto is a worrisome development. “The extreme-right now has a place in the political arena, for the first time since the dictatorship. The Catholic Church, the military, and powerful business interests have been connected to each other in Uruguay since colonial times. The military party, the Cabildo Abierto, is very connected to the right-wing in Spain, the old supporters of Franco,” Lilián told me with evident concern. Manini Ríos was elected to the Senate in 2019, and his party received 11% of the vote in that election.

How are progressive forces reacting to this? Lilián is energized by this question: “The right-wing has named us, the feminists who fight for abortion and LGBTQ rights and against domestic violence, as their main enemy. That can be useful! How do we use that opportunity? The left-wing parties recognize our strength in the streets, and they are listening to us more than in the past… even if they are always liable to bargain away our rights. So, what do we want in this context? If it is to be in Congress, we cannot have token women here and there. We need to commit to being in power and being in politics. And if we have power tomorrow, what do we do with it?”

Lilián in 2021 at the microphone in Montevideo, Uruguay, at a rally on September 28, International Safe Abortion Day

When I asked her how she felt about the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States, Lilián let out a loooooong sigh: “Ah… It’s incredible, really! Nothing is written in stone. We will have to fight this forever.” She did not think Dobbs would affect Uruguay, even though anti-abortion forces will certainly try to use it. “We have a law in Uruguay, not a court decision. The same is true in Argentina. But this could make Colombia more vulnerable to a reversal of their Constitutional Court decision,” she thought. She went on: “It reminds us that we cannot rely solely on the judiciary to guarantee our rights. The members [of the court] change and you lose your rights. We cannot have courts giving, and then taking away rights like this. We need to change the social contract. Changes in law? Yes, sure. But also, changes in politics and power. These are the bigger objectives of our fight.”

Lilián felt this was a good moment for the reproductive right movement in the United States to learn from South American countries, given their strong momentum on women’s health and rights. “Don’t focus only on abortion. The political conditions for all of sexual and reproductive health, for rights and justice in reproduction and sexuality more broadly, are key. Broaden your work to engage in the political and economic justice debates in your country and mobilize that way. This has been one of our most successful strategies in our region. We have allied with social justice forces: the labor movement, the environmental movement, the students… I feel the abortion question has been too siloed in the US, too focused on abortion access, the technologies themselves like the pill. That’s all fine, but it’s too narrow. You need to reframe now. What kind of world do we want?”

Thinking about the collaboration of Latin American feminists with US feminists, Lilián felt that this collaboration had been limited overall—too focused on donors and funding. There is, she feels, a great need for “more sustained contact with American activists, academics and thinkers. The most important universities in the world are in the US. We need more research, more thinking about the future. The US academia and social movements need to be better connected: We did that in Latin America and it has been a very productive collaboration.”

In closing, Lilián and I discussed the growing challenge posed to feminist movements by the notorious TERFs (“trans-exclusionary radical feminists”). TERFs insist that only someone born a biological female (which is not a straightforward determination to begin with—see my January 2022 Digest ) and who is assigned the female gender at birth can be considered a woman. They have allied themselves with right-wing activists in denouncing trans persons and denying them access to spaces (bathrooms, locker rooms, shelters, detention, etc.) and events (such as sports competitions) that correspond to their self-defined gender. How should feminists who are supportive of trans rights (as we both are) respond? We felt that this is definitely an area that could benefit from more global academia-movement collaboration, and from deeper conversations with trans activists.

Lilián connected the TERF phenomenon with the right-wing’s broader co-optation of women’s rights. In Uruguay, the right embraces so-called good feminists, women who claim to support women’s rights but steer clear of the core issues, “They don’t raise family dynamics, they don’t speak about rising authoritarianism, they don’t question gender roles, they don’t support abortion rights. They use progressive language but they stick to a narrow set of issues, like being on boards of companies. The current Vice-President of Uruguay, Beatriz Argimón, is one of those ‘good’ feminists.”

When I spoke to Sonia Correa in January 2022, she noted the same problem in Brazil, where several key right-wing political leaders are in fact women. In the US, I thought of Amy Coney Barrett, and in another era, of Phyllis Schlafly. “‘Women’, as a category, aren’t going to save us,” Sonia told me at the time. Lilián agrees: “We have to go beyond our binary thinking, which really affects all aspects of our life. We can’t be stuck in 1945. We have to think beyond, to think in terms of humanity, to organize in a broader way. It’s not easy, but it has to happen, and in some cases, is already happening.”

Of course, that will require other progressive forces to more readily act on a feminist agenda, including the “difficult” issues, rather than be dragged along, as feminists have had to do when dealing with so many center-left, progressive political and social sector leaders. (Thinking of you, President Biden, on abortion rights…)

“To be a feminist is to be constantly challenged!” Lilián concluded, as we left each other, eager for more debate and discussion.

In solidarity with the bold and brave feminists of Uruguay,