Prospects for Reproductive Rights Dim with End of “Left-Turn”

By Merike Blofield and Christina Ewig*

A large group of women and men gather in front of statue in a plaza.

A demonstration against abortion in Córdoba, Argentina, shortly after President Mauricio Macri’s election. / Marco Camejo / Flickr / Creative Commons

The end of Latin America’s “pink tide” suggests the region will make little progress in protecting reproductive rights in coming years and may even face some policy reversals.  With five Latin American governments slated to elect new leaders in 2018, and with recent elections of right-leaning governments in Chile and Argentina, Latin America may well be concluding the left-turn that has characterized the region’s politics since the early 2000s.

  • The past two decades of pink tide governments coincided with a flurry of legislative activity on abortion policy – in sharp contrast to previous decades of policy stasis, when high rates of clandestine abortions coexisted with restrictive laws. Since the turn of the millennium, abortion laws have been revised by Latin American legislatures and courts on 11 separate occasions in eight different countries.  Even in countries where legal reforms did not go through, legislatures debated bills at a prevalence not seen before.
  • Several left governments have carried through liberalization in response to public opinion and social mobilization. Last August, for example, the Chilean Supreme Court upheld its Congress’ liberalization of abortion law – to allow for abortion under three circumstances (threat to life; fatal fetal defect; rape) – overturning the absolute prohibition that had been in effect since the last days of the Pinochet military regime in 1989.  Some left governments went even further:  Uruguay legalized abortion in 2012, and Mexico City did so even earlier, in 2007.

Yet left governments have not been unequivocally liberal; some have actively upheld or enacted conservative laws, even absolute prohibitions.  In 2006, the Sandinista Party in Nicaragua reversed course from allowing therapeutic abortion to supporting absolute prohibition, while Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa in 2013 rejected a provision allowing abortion in the case of rape.  The FMLN in El Salvador has doggedly, even brutally, enforced a total prohibition, to the detriment of many (primarily poor) women’s lives.  In a recent study (published in Social Politics), we show this split in policy roughly follows the “institutionalized” vs. “populist” typology of lefts.

  • Institutionalized parties – like those in Chile and Uruguay – have channels in place for civil society organizations, including feminist ones, to have bottom-up influence. Given their respect for the rules of the game, however, the institutionalized lefts are also likely to face well-organized conservative opposition, which slow down reform, shape final legislation, or even veto it altogether.  In Uruguay and Chile, feminists had a voice, but conservatives were also are able to block, slow down, and water down liberalization.  This is why the Uruguayan reform took so long and why in both cases the final legislation is less liberal than the original proposals.
  • By contrast, populist governments, like those of Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega and Ecuador under Rafael Correa, often see advocates for liberalization as political threats – particularly feminists who also represent more general claims for individual autonomy and pluralism. Moreover, an issue like abortion, where the practical costs of a restrictive stance are born almost exclusively by low-income women, is likely to be used by populist leaders as a pawn in a power struggle with well-organized, influential religious forces.

Although we systematically analyzed only abortion politics, we found that sex education, contraceptive access, and other reproductive health policies more broadly have followed similar dynamics in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Chile, and Uruguay.  For example, the Uruguayan left government expanded sex education after assuming power in 2006, while in Ecuador, leaders appointed in health bureaucracies sought to reduce access to publically provided reproductive health services.  Nicaragua, on the other hand, has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies outside sub-Saharan Africa.

As Latin America’s left shift appears to be coming to a close, reproductive health policies promise to remain contentions – and abortion continues to be a public health crisis across most of Latin America even with the limited liberalizations of the past decade.  The Alan Guttmacher Institute recently estimated that 6.5 million abortions are annually performed in the region.  The vast majority are still done in clandestinity, resulting in high maternal mortality and tens of thousands of annual hospitalizations, which affect low-income women the most.  While it is unlikely that recent changes will be reversed in the more institutionalized settings, the rightward shift that is occurring among especially these countries does not bode well for further liberalization and resolution to the abortion crisis.

 January 18, 2018

 * Merike Blofield is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami.  Christina Ewig is Professor of Public Affairs and Director of the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

What Does Macri’s Victory Mean for Latin America’s Left Turns?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

South America right

Photo Credits: Douglas Fernandes and _Butte_ / Flickr / Creative Commons

Argentine President-elect Mauricio Macri’s actions since his historic victory last week indicate a rightward shift in domestic and foreign policy that some observers are tempted to proclaim as part of a broader Latin American trend.  He has reiterated promises of broad economic reforms and appointed a cabinet – including former JP Morgan executive and ex-Central Bank chief Alfonso Prat-Gay as his finance minister – to implement them.  He has further pledged to reverse outgoing President Fernández de Kirchner’s protectionist trade policies.  (During the campaign, advocates of unbound capitalism cheered when he named Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” as one of his favorite books.)  Macri has named Susana Malcorra, a senior aide to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with strong diplomatic credentials, to be his foreign minister and, for starters, directed her to reverse policies he judged to coddle Venezuela. The President-elect, who takes office on December 10, is speaking with the confidence of a President elected with more than a 3-point margin over Kirchnerista candidate Daniel Scioli and with control over more than the 91 seats (one third of the total 257 seats) that his Cambiemos coalition won in the lower house of Congress.  (His party is the first, however, to control simultaneously the Province of Buenos Aires, the City of Buenos Aires, and presidency.)

The temptation in some quarters to declare Macri’s victory as the beginning of the end for Latin America’s “Left Turns” is understandable but nonetheless premature.  To be sure, the Argentine electoral results coincide with other major setbacks for various currents of the Latin American left:  The Chavista project in Venezuela is crashing; Brazilian President Rousseff and her party are mired in a corruption morass and economic crisis whose combined effects may cut short her time in office; President Correa, facing a dire economic situation in Ecuador, is increasingly talking about abandoning efforts to run yet again in 2017.  Chilean President Bachelet’s low popularity and declining public support for the Vázquez government in Uruguay may be additional signs that the prospects for the “pink tide” are very much in doubt.

But in Argentina and beyond, the jury is still out.  Through no action of its own, the South American left enjoyed the multiple benefits of the decade-long commodity boom that began in 2003.  Just as its electoral successes did not indicate wholesale shifts to the left in the region – indeed political scientists have long questioned whether the evidence supports claims of a leftward shift in popular preferences – today’s parallel crises may reflect the end of of the boom rather than a rejection of left-leaning governments.  Many of the policies advanced by various currents of the “pink tide” may remain highly popular, even while they are no longer affordable.  Another tempting explanation is that Latin Americans are rejecting leaders who they perceive as corrupt, irrespective of their placement on the left-right spectrum.  In Argentina, notably, Macri hasn’t rejected the Kirchneristas’ redistributive agenda but has instead emphasized the confusing, corrupt way it has been pursued for the past 12 years.  (Never before has an Argentine rightist portrayed eliminating poverty as a core priority.)  It may well be that voters understand economic slowdowns and dysfunction as a product of corruption rather than the fallout from declines in historically high commodity prices.

Regardless of the underlying drivers of electoral change and public disillusion with incumbents, it’s fair to ask if the left’s current travails and the right’s resurgence will open the way toward more accountable political leadership, whatever its ideological proclivities, or just signal an alternation of power.  Like Macri in Argentina, a new cohort of Latin American leaders will have to prove that they are more than outsiders drawing on sentiment to throw out the incumbent rascals.  The question is whether they pursue policies that make democracy more transparent, expand meaningful political participation, and sustain the social gains that have been achieved by the pink tide governments that now appear to be on the ropes.

December 2, 2015