Reproductive rights protestors in Argentina. (AP)

Reproductive rights protestors in Argentina. (AP)

Explainer: Abortion Rights in Latin America

By Carin Zissis , Chase Harrison , Jon Orbach and Jennifer Vilcarino

AS/COA Online covers the expansion of abortion decriminalization in Latin America in the twenty-first century.

This article was originally published on June 28, 2022 and has since been updated.

Until it was overturned on June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade stood out not just in the Americas, but in much of the world, for establishing abortion as a constitutional right. For most of the nearly five decades Roe was in force, the majority of Latin American countries offered little in the way of abortion rights or access. Most provided limited access in cases of rape or risk to the mother’s life, but others, such as the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, have a complete ban on the procedure. And while there were places—such as Cuba (1965), Mexico City (2007), and Uruguay (2012)—that took steps toward legalization, up until 2020 some 97 percent of Latin American women lived in countries with severe abortion restrictions.

That changed in December of 2020 when Argentina legalized abortion. Since then, Mexico and Colombia decriminalized the procedure as well, meaning three of the four most populous countries in Latin America have now done so. Also, in September 2023, Brazil’s Supreme Court opened a session that will decide whether to implement a nationwide legalization of the procedure up to 12 weeks into pregnancy. 

These countries in Latin America follow a global trend that has seen more than 30 nations expand abortion access since 2000. 

But not everyone is heading in the same direction. Nicaragua, Peru, and the United States are three of the four countries worldwide that have recently rolled back access. And with Argentina electing anti-abortionist Javier Milei to the helm, that country, too, could see reproductive rights under threat.

AS/COA Online explores the expansion of abortion rights in Latin America in the twenty-first century, as well as examples of countries taking restrictive steps.


Much has changed since Uruguay’s government banned abortion outright in 1938. What was once a largely Catholic society is now half unaffiliated, atheist, or agnostic.

In 2008, President Tabaré Vázquez vetoed a Congress-approved bill that would have decriminalized abortion. But four years later, during the presidency of José “Pepe” Mujica, the landscape changed. On October 17, 2012, Uruguay became the second country in Latin America to legalize abortion, following a 17–14 vote in the Senate.

“With this law, we enter a group of developed countries that have mostly adopted criteria of liberalization, recognizing the failure of punitive norms that intend to prevent abortion,” said Senator Luis José Gallo during the session.

The law, which allows women to get elective abortions up to 12 weeks into pregnancy, drew criticism from both sides of the aisle. Anti-abortion politicians argued that the government should have encouraged adoption over abortion, while the pro-choice side took umbrage at a stipulation that requires women to justify abortion requests to a panel of three experts. Women must also go through a five-day period of reflection before completing the procedure. 

In Uruguay, as in other Latin American countries, rights networks help women with self-managed abortions, providing information and emotional support.


Even though it wasn’t the first country in Latin America to legalize abortion, Argentina is viewed by many as the launchpad for the recent abortion rights movement sweeping across other parts of the region. Starting in 2005, Argentina’s National Campaign for the Right to Abortion adopted the use of a green bandana—representing health—in a move that harkened back to the use of white kerchiefs used by mothers of those disappeared by the country’s military dictatorship. A decade later, activists began to don the green scarf in #NiUnaMenos (“Not one woman fewer”) marches that protested against violence against women and femicides. In 2018, hundreds of thousands of Argentines took to the streets in support of decriminalizing abortion, setting off the Marea Verde, or green wave. The green bandana has since been used in women’s rights protests across Latin America and other parts of the world, including in recent U.S. marches in defense of Roe v. Wade.

Despite the large-scale mobilizations, in August 2018, Argentina’s Senate voted down legislation that would have decriminalized abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. That left the country with its status quo legislation allowing abortion just in cases of rape and risks to a woman’s life.

But the national debate proved a stepping stone in Argentina’s expansion of abortion rights. Public opinion polls showed most Argentines supported decriminalization, and during the 2019 presidential race, candidates found themselves forced to take a stand. With newly elected President Alberto Fernández supporting legalization, the country’s legislature took up the matter again.

On December 30, 2020, a 38–29 Senate vote legalized abortion up until the fourteenth week of pregnancy. In addition, in a nod to activists’ argument that restrictions disproportionately harm poor women, the law guarantees that abortions can be accessed for free.

But it’s possible Argentina’s laws on abortion could be a matter of debate once again. On November 19, far-right libertarian Javier Milei won Argentina’s presidential runoff and has vowed to hold a referendum on whether to overturn the country’s 2020 decriminalization law. Legal experts contend he will face obstacles due to constitutional constraints—Article 39 says matters of criminal law are not eligible for “popular initiatives.” Even if he can bypass that hurdle, Milei will need support from an absolute majority in both chambers of Congress. His faction holds just 10 percent of the Senate and 15 percent of the lower house. 


On September 6, 2023, Mexico’s Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in a unanimous decision for the national government to criminalize abortion. As a result, federal public health services must offer free abortions to those who request them and employees cannot be penalized for performing them. “The legal system that punishes abortion in the federal penal code is unconstitutional, given that it violates the human rights of women and of people with capacity to gestate,” the Court said in its decision. 

While the news was cause for celebration among pro-choice supporters in Mexico, 20 of 32 Mexican states still criminalize abortion in their penal codes—which is now unconstitutional. But even in those states, federal institutions are obligated to provide the procedure and patients receiving it are protected. The offending states must now update their penal codes, but the deputy director of the Information Group for Chosen Reproduction (GIRE)—the group behind the appeal that led to this case—says implementation will take time.

The 2023 Supreme Court decision builds upon a September 7, 2021 ruling that decriminalized abortion and recognized the fundamental right to end a pregnancy based on two state-level decisions. The ruling struck down parts of a Coahuila state law that punished women with up to three years in prison for having an abortion. It also allowed for women imprisoned for abortion to seek freedom. A separate decision made at the same time invalidated Sinaloa state legislation that backed the right to life from the point of conception.

In and of itself, the news of the decriminalization decision was notable, given that it occurred in Latin America’s second-largest and a majority Catholic country. But it drew additional attention given that less than a week before the ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block a highly restrictive abortion law in Texas, which borders Coahuila. The back-to-back decisions in neighboring countries sparked word that women in the United States could turn to the neighboring country—and Mexican activists—for support.

Even before the Mexican court’s ruling, four states had already taken the step of decriminalization, starting in 2007 with Mexico City. In 2019, Oaxaca followed suit, as did Hidalgo and Veracruz in 2021. The 2021 federal ruling then set a precedent for states to modify their state legislatures to allow for elective termination of pregnancy. Seven states have since done so: Baja California and Colima in 2021; Sinaloa, Guerrero, Baja California Sur, and Quintana Roo in 2022; and Aguascalientes in 2023. The Court’s 2021 ruling on Coahuila puts that state on the list, bringing the total number of states with abortion decriminalized to 12 of 32. In most, the gestational limit is 12 weeks, although it is 13 weeks in Sinaloa. In all other states, abortion is legal at least in the case of rape and, in most, in cases affecting a mother’s health.


On February 21, 2022, Colombia’s Constitutional Court decriminalized abortion for up to the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. The Court handed down the 5-4 decision in a case filed by Causa Justa, a movement made up of women’s rights activists and healthcare professionals that focused on how the lack of abortion rights more negatively affected poor and disadvantaged women.

With abortion outlawed in the country since the 1936 penal code was created, the battle for legalization was a long one. Various bills since the 1970s attempted to expand abortion rights in the country, but few passed. Over the years, as the church’s influence waned and governments searched for peace with left-wing insurgency groups, things began to change. Back in May 2006, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the country’s outright ban on abortion was a violation of women’s rights. Its decision stopped penalizing women and healthcare providers for performed abortions if a pregnancy posed a risk to a woman’s health, if there are fetal abnormalities, or in cases of rape or incest.


On December 17, Chileans will vote in a referendum on a draft Constitution that includes a key change on abortion from the current Magna Carta. The document, written by a council in which the right-wing Republican Party has the biggest representation, proposes to protect “the right to life of who will be born,” as opposed to the current right to life of “that which” will be born. It is unclear, however, if the document will gain approval. 

Chileans also rejected a September 2022 plebiscite for a new, progressive charter—a document that would have made Chile the first country in the world to enshrine the right to terminate a pregnancy in its Constitution. Article 16 of the document called for the state to provide the “services” needed to perform the “voluntary termination of pregnancy.”

Chile had a total abortion ban up until 2017. That year, on August 2, the country’s Congress passed a law establishing three exceptions: if the life of the pregnant person is at risk, if the pregnancy is the result of a rape, or if there are fetal abnormalities. This bill changed a blanket ban that was in place since 1989.

Taking restrictive steps: Nicaragua, Honduras, and Peru

Nicaragua: On November 18, 2006, President Enrique Bolaños signed a law that was passed by Congress that banned abortion under all circumstances in Nicaragua. For 130 years prior to the legislation, abortion was permitted under extraordinary circumstances in the country. The measure was promoted by the country’s powerful Catholic Church and passed in the unicameral Congress with 52 votes in favor, zero in opposition, and 38 in either abstention or absence. Jail sentences for abortion range between six and 30 years.

Honduras: On January 27, 2021, Honduras’ Congress approved a constitutional amendment that strengthened the language around the country’s abortion ban, increasing the number of votes needed to repeal it from two-thirds to three-quarters (from 85 to 96 members). Even before the measure, abortion was banned without exception in Honduras.

The measure was taken during a presidential election year, and outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández, now imprisoned in the United States and facing drug trafficking charges, dubbed it the “Shield against Abortion in Honduras.” Current leftist President Xiomara Castro campaigned in favor of restoring some reproductive freedoms. On March 8, 2023, Castro signed an executive order ending the prohibition of emergency contraception. Until then, Honduras was the only country in the region where that was banned. 

Peru: On November 9, 2023, Peruvian Congress approved, in a 72–26 vote, a law that recognizes the rights of the unborn, starting from the point of conception, as opposed to birth. “The conceived is subject to rights in everything that favors it … These rights are based on human dignity,” states the law.