Three decades ago, in a small Argentinian beach city, thousands of women’s rights activists met and launched what would become the International Safe Abortion Day – now marked each year around the world on 28 September.
They also learned, from Brazilian activists, about misoprostol – a drug that had been used to treat gastric ulcers, which was also effective and safe for terminating pregnancies (usually taken in combination with another drug, mifepristone).
“It was amazing,” recalls Chilean surgeon Marisa Matamala, now 81, of this knowledge – which spread from Brazil by word of mouth before these drugs became used in places around the world for medical (as opposed to surgical) abortions.
“It was cathartic. There was consensus. There were lots of Latin American leaders, women from many places. It filled us with energy,” she added, about the gathering in San Bernardo, 340 kilometres south of the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires.
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Matamala is one of several women at the event – the fifth Encuentro Feminista de América Latina y El Caribe (EFLAC) of feminists from across the region, held in November 1990 – who spoke to openDemocracy about its significance, and its legacy.
We decided we would not tolerate the continued sacrifice of women’s lives
More than 3,000 people attended the summit, which included a workshop about abortion with hundreds of feminists from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. There were also some delegates from outside the region including Canada, the Netherlands, and the US.
“San Bernardo was an opportunity to analyse how clandestine abortions affect the situation of women, and to think about unwanted motherhood as another form of slavery,” says Elvira Lutz, a Uruguayan midwife (now 85 years old).
At the time, Lutz explains, women in Latin America had little to no access to safe contraceptives or any form of sex education, and abortion was not openly discussed. “We decided we would not tolerate the continued sacrifice of women’s lives.”
“Latin America,” recalls Uruguayan physician Cristina Grela (now 77) – who founded the regional office of Catholics for Choice in Montevideo in 1987 – had a “high number of deaths caused by clandestine abortions”, and action was necessary to stem this.
This is why Grela’s group and the Argentine Commission for the Right to Abortion, founded in 1988 and led by the late lawyer Dora Coledesky, proposed the EFLAC workshop whose declaration established 28 September as an abortion rights day.
Inspiration from Brazil
Argentinian gynaecologist Alicia Cacopardo (now 85), recalls that “Brazilians proposed 28 Sepember” as the day for abortion rights protests, for symbolic reasons.
On that day in 1871, Brazil had adopted the so-called ‘free womb law’ granting freedom to children born from slaves. “For us, freedom of wombs was free abortion,” says Grela.
Several activists who were at the San Bernardo event recalled listening intently to their colleagues from Brazil, including about the potential of misoprostol for safe abortions.
Brazilian pharmacists and women had discovered in the 1980s that a side effect of misoprostol, sold as Cytotec, was uterine contractions. Knowledge of this spread by word of mouth, and the drug became an essential item for abortion solidarity networks.
“It was very important that we came to know about misoprostol. We knew nothing about it,” says Argentinian epidemiologist Mabel Bianco, now aged 80 but still focused on sexual and reproductive rights at the Fundación para Estudio e Investigación de la Mujer.
In 2005, the World Health Organization included misoprostol in its list of “essential medicines”. But it is still hard for many women in Latin America (and elsewhere) to access, despite a growing number of countries liberalising their abortion laws.
In 2012, Uruguay became the first country in South America to legalise abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. In 2017, Chile lifted its total ban on abortion to allow terminations in cases of rape, severe foetal anomalies and to save the woman’s life.
Argentina’s recent legal abortion bill, approved at the end of 2020, added momentum to abortion rights activism across the region. Green scarves – the symbol of the country’s pro-abortion movement – have since spread beyond its borders.
They appeared in Ecuador earlier this year, when the constitutional court legalised abortion in cases of rape, after a long battle by feminist groups.
More recently, they were also visible in Mexico, where Veracruz and Hidalgo became the country’s third and fourth states to remove abortion restrictions. The Mexican supreme court has now declared that penalising women for abortions is unconsitutional.
This 28 September, Matamala from Chile says that feminist activists in her country will wear their green scarves at a demonstration outside an official convention to push for the inclusion of the right to abortion in the country’s new constitution.
Grela in Uruguay is less optimistic about the future, however. “The Catholic Church blocks everything. Chilean women have been fighting for years. The debate in Peru has no impact. In Colombia [...] they don’t even discuss legal reform,” she says.
In 1991, one of the youngest attendees at the San Bernardo summit was Morena Herrera. Then aged 30, she had been fighting in El Salvador’s civil war with the leftist guerrilla movement the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.
“I read a leaflet saying ‘debate on abortion’ and I went along [...] At the time, I had no idea of the far-reaching significance of the meeting. I fell in love with feminism there,” Herrera recalls of the event’s lasting impact.
Since 2009, she has led a group, the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, which works to free women imprisoned for abortion-related crimes.
Three decades after that key summit, many countries still owe women full rights to decide what happens to their bodies – and these activists still won’t settle for anything less.