In 2000, the Mexican state of Guanajuato passed a bill outlawing abortion even in cases of rape — one of the harshest restrictions the country had ever seen. In response, feminist activists coordinated an unprecedented wave of protests, creating enough political pressure to overturn the bill. This victory marked the beginning of the feminist collective Las Libres (“the free ones”). As Verónica Cruz Sánchez, the group’s founder, explained to me in an interview in April, Las Libres works for “women’s right to live a life free of violence, building what is necessary so that women and teenagers and girls can live out their sexual and reproductive rights.”
Contraception was outlawed in Mexico in 1931, but a 1974 law required the government to offer family planning services, including contraception, and amended the constitution to uphold the right of all Mexican citizens to decide on the “number and spacing of their children.” After the election of right-wing populist president Vicente Fox in 2000, conservative political and religious interests again tightened restrictions on abortion, including implementing the extreme measure in Guanajuato. For the next decade, access to abortion varied from state to state, fluctuating with public outcry and government pushback. After 2007, when Mexico City defied the Catholic Church and legalized abortion, 28 other states refused to decriminalize the practice; indeed, until 2018, twenty of Mexico’s 32 states had laws on the books declaring that life begins at the moment of conception. Abortion-related offenses carried prison sentences of up to six years, though reports circulated that some women remained in prison for decades. Cruz Sánchez and Las Libres developed their organizing strategies in the face of an unholy alliance of fervent Christians, populist politicians who used the issue to stoke support in conservative regions, and a pro-life lobby that held sway over many monied politicians. In 2021, unrelenting feminist resistance to abortion bans achieved the impossible: Mexico’s Supreme Court declared the criminalization of abortion unconstitutional in a unanimous, 10-0 ruling. With that, Mexico joined a handful of Latin American countries — including Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba, and Guyana — in guaranteeing legal abortion. Despite this victory, many questions remain: Will local and district judges obey the newly established precedent? Will the medical community align its practices with the decision? Was the court too imprecise about pregnancy stages? What role will the issue of abortion now play in the country’s political and social life? The factions that divided the country have not disappeared. But what is certain is that abortion rights defenders will not leave the streets until every woman is free to make decisions about her own life on her own terms.
For 22 years, Las Libres has fought in the streets, courts, hospitals, state congresses, universities, rural communities, and homes, in-person and virtually, for women’s rights and self-determination. Today, their organizing has a global reach; their materials are translated into at least six languages, and collective members help women through their abortions all over the world, including in the United States. Volunteers provide information about medication abortion and “accompany” women through the process, usually via text messages and phone calls. As a collective, they have developed a legal strategy for people facing with abortion-related charges; created educational models for rural, Indigenous, and impoverished peoples on issues of sexual violence, birth control, and abortion; mobilized for legislation against gender-based violence and femicide; conducted media campaigns and done substantial research on abortion access; and coordinated protests and public demonstrations in nearly every state of the country. I spoke to Cruz Sánchez during a bleak moment in the United States for a reminder of what is possible when you rely on the relentless spirit and collective power of ordinary women. As she told me, “It’s about women saying: ‘First we will take our rights, then we will live them, then we will support and accompany others in their experience, and then there’s no way to stop that momentum because those rights belong to us because we’re humans.’”
What follows are edited excerpts from our conversation, translated from the Spanish.
The Origins of Las Libres
Our first struggle and victory came during the year 2000, when the state congress of Guanajuato eliminated the exception clause for abortion from the penal code, which had allowed for abortion in the instance of rape. But when we tried to explain to the public why the issue was so grave, we realized that most rape survivors had never had access to that right. And when we began to look case by case, what we discovered was unbelievable, insane: for the majority of girls who had been raped and needed an abortion, their rapist was their biological father. When we exposed this fact publicly, there was such indignation that we managed to reinstate the exception clause.
However, we realized that the right to an abortion was not actually real if women could rarely access it. So, we said to ourselves, “we don’t know what we’re going to do, but we are going to guarantee that right.” And we set out on a search for doctors, psychologists, private attorneys, and men and women who were willing to help. We persuaded them to provide help for free, and directed women to them when they needed an abortion, especially women most in need of health services and information.
One thing that Las Libres has always tried to do is involve the public. Achieving broad social support to solve our problems has been very important, since they are not solely women’s problems. Rather, they are produced and reproduced by all of society, and are pertinent to everybody. Las Libres has had so much support, even in this region known for being conservative –– Guanajuato has been one of the states where public perception has shifted most rapidly.
So, we dedicated ourselves to accompanying women and girls (initially only rape victims) for abortions. We advertised publicly, and soon, women came to us and told us, “I was not a victim of rape, but I also want to have an abortion.” We said, why not? We began to guarantee safe at-home abortions to all women who wanted them. Along the way we learned about the World Health Organization’s protocol for at-home medication abortions. When we found out that medical supervision was not needed, it was like, well this is it, that’s the solution, right?
We have since also worked in decriminalization. We found women who had been jailed for abortion and related charges. We began to use solidarity networks to build a defense strategy [for incarcerated women], which was very unusual and very, very educational for the population. We wanted to show people the consequences of inaction. We exposed the reality of women being imprisoned because somebody believed they did something wrong, or because someone didn’t apply the law correctly.
That’s how we found ourselves specializing in everything relevant to abortion — in law, medicine, and society. We started all of this in Guanajuato, but now we work practically across the entire country. We have developed successful networks of accompaniment for safe abortions; we have built and honed an entire defense strategy for women facing criminal punishment for abortion in Mexico. And we do accompaniment work with women and girls who have survived sexual violence and attempted femicide.
Networks of Accompaniment
It’s the women themselves who are the solution. It was always clear to us that we wanted any woman who came to us to be able access her human rights — even if the world claimed that abortion was wrong, that it was a crime, that the woman belonged in jail or in hell for it, or if her family threated to kick her out. We wanted each woman to know that there was a segment of society willing to support her with the necessary resources. We wanted to create a space for women to live out their rights, in spite of anything external.
As women, we are often tempted to explain ourselves. Many women who came to us would say, “Look, I actually should abort,” or “I have to abort,” or “I must because I’m studying, because my parents don’t know, because if they find out they’ll throw me out.” And we would offer them information: tell them that they can do the abortion at home, that if they don’t want to tell anyone then no one has to find out, that it is super safe. And when we told them that we could guarantee their health and freedom — then they would be convinced. The women would almost always come back after the abortion and ask, “If I was able to have my abortion in a safe and free way, we all ought to be able to do the same. What can I do to ensure another woman can have this freedom?” That was the lightbulb moment. This was the answer. Women would share their experiences. That was vital.
When we were first taking off, abortion pills were very expensive and there was only one brand available. Many women didn’t even know if taking it was a crime, but that wasn’t their concern. They weren’t worried about whether taking it was a sin either, despite most of them being Catholic. Instead, they worried about the possibility of death and whether they’d be able to have children. And then they’d ask: “What will it cost?” Our answer was always: “Nothing, it’s free.” That was completely unbelievable to them. We could see how that revelation would instantly remove every negative connotation that abortion might have: They’re going to give me the pills and they’re going to be there to support me.
Back then [around 2003], you could buy the pills and they cost almost 3,000 pesos [about $300 at the time] per box. There were 28 pills in each box. That’s when we adopted a protocol: A woman would receive a single dose of four pills, administered intravaginally, and we would tell any woman who wanted to help others to keep the rest of the pills so that when the next woman came along she could give them to her. Most importantly, she would be able to share her own experience. Imagine a woman who is terrified of what might happen to her who hears that someone who has just gone through it is going to accompany her and support her; it’s like, “Well, if she is okay, then I will be okay too.”
That is what really started generating these networks of solidarity. They were not made up of feminists, they were not collectives, and they were not formed by the kinds of organized groups we know now. The first networks were made up of women who had experienced an accompanied abortion. They returned and said, “I want to give back.”
From there it became obvious that this was a political movement, and that this momentum is what would decriminalize abortion. Rather than waiting around in the hopes that one day lawmakers would decide to do us the favor of legalizing abortion, we knew that women are here and ready to face many problems for which concrete solutions are to be found in solidarity.
I’ve always said that we’re not the government, or the armed forces, or attorneys — instead we’re going to solve the problem on a case-by-case basis. The way to solve a social problem is through social means, through women. Organizing and solidarity, network building among women — they generate women who can say, “I have an answer, I have a solution, and I can carry it out myself.”
In about 2009 we began to create networks with organized groups in different states. That’s when things really took off. We had the experience needed to enable the networks to take root across the country and grow into their current forms. Today, these networks exist in nearly every territory in Latin America. We found our way in that initial phase of organic growth.
Working With — And in Spite Of — Legislators
This isn’t only about biological reproduction. It’s also about social reproduction and how women have been relegated to the domestic sphere to stop us from challenging political and economic power in the public sphere. Though birth control and sex education are obviously important, it’s not true that they will prevent abortion. We need to talk with people about the real issues: about the fact that abortion is unavoidable because women will seek and receive them regardless of whether or not they’re legal.
What I do is partly tied up with the history of labor struggle. For example, it only takes one woman knowing her rights to raise her consciousness around an issue, and then there’s no stopping her — especially when the issue calls for social mobilization and movement, for rearranging what is in disarray. We’ve decided that we want to donate our resources, money, labor, and time to the women and girls who need it most. From our perspective, that’s women in rural areas, Indigenous regions, and inner-city urban populations. However, we will accompany any woman who comes to us. We don’t turn anybody away, but we do prioritize women in greatest need. We work with these women to teach them their rights and how to demand them.
We also have to work with legislators, politicians, and decision-makers to make them understand that they have a responsibility and an obligation to guarantee our rights. The reality is that because we still have a state and laws and institutions, public funds must be deployed in ways that guarantee human rights. We remind them that this is their obligation.
When a woman decides to come forward and report that she has been a victim of violence, we will accompany her through the legal system so she can find justice. But the system often does a poor job and is unequipped to handle the issue. The result is that we then have to accompany the institutions as well, so that the people inside can learn how to resolve the issues — or at the very least, so that a particular woman can have her case resolved in the right manner, because after all, that’s the whole point.
So, while our focus is on women and girls, we also work with the law and policymakers and especially with the media because it’s a resource for both sides. Journalists can deliver a message to the public, which will place social pressure on politicians and decision-makers and influence public opinion in our favor. We have work to do with everybody in this struggle.
A Network of Support
We need three things [to set up an accompaniment network]. The first is public willingness. We don’t generally approach people who haven’t asked to do accompaniment. If people ask for it, it means there is already a desire to organize. The first person who called us from another state was a young women who said, “I want to form a network here in Tijuana!” Then she said, “But I only have two friends. Can I do it with just the three of us?” Of course! So I went to Tijuana to help the group build a network, and now that network provides some of the strongest support to [the work in] the United States.
I mention this because people often make the mistake of thinking they need to gather 20 or a hundred people. But not everything has to be massive. You organize and shape and build — that’s how these things get started. Sometimes three or four people do the work that a hundred might do in another place.
The second thing is that we as individuals need to become aware of who has resources, and I don’t mean financial resources, I mean life resources. We need people who have not only a desire to help but also the willingness to challenge the social system. Because we’re confronting a system that doesn’t believe it needs to guarantee certain rights and saying, “No, the fact that you don’t guarantee them means you’re not doing your job. That the laws are not in harmony is not our problem, it’s yours, so you resolve it. And while you do that, we’ll resolve it through the everyday lives of women, through their everyday needs.”
The third thing is cultivating solidarity among women. Throughout human history, women have practiced solidarity, support, and accompaniment. The question then becomes, how do you organize and leverage organic solidarity toward a political objective? You take the power that solidarity and collective organizing produces and you deploy it.
The majority of women we support come out of violent situations. When each woman can successfully say, “The issue of abortion was a social burden I was carrying, and now I am free of its weight!” that’s when we will know we have done our job. The women almost always say, “I am free now”; that’s the language used. She might be saying it in part out of gratitude for our support, but also because she is affirming her own freedom. Now I am free. And that’s our fight at Las Libres, to free every woman in every aspect of her life.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we began to get a large influx of messages from all over the world. Eventually we came across a Facebook post that was very typical of Mexico: a picture of a large semi-truck used to transport produce. The truck is covered with a tarp, and on the tarp is printed “Mifegymiso,” [the brand name of an abortion pill]. The caption reads: “It’s too bad that women’s rights exist, too bad that sexual and reproductive rights exist, too bad that abortion is available to women. It’s too bad that women can make decisions about their own bodies. It’s a shame.” Obviously, that drew our attention, and it goes on: “It’s a shame that medical abortion exists, that it can be self-administered … that it can be carried out the following way … four pills …” It continues to describe abortion protocols in the post until concluding with, “It’s a shame that Las Libres exists if you have any further questions or concerns.”
When we came across it, it had already been shared over 10 million times. But we didn’t know who posted it, or where the image came from. Strange things like that are always happening to us as a result of our work.
During the pandemic everything was closed. But we never closed. We simply decided not to. This post went viral right at the beginning of the pandemic, when everything was suddenly happening online, and we too went viral. Many networks and groups in other countries started to direct anybody who needed an abortion to Las Libres. We were making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, even though we hadn’t actually published anything there! Everyone was saying, “If you need support or guidance or information, call Las Libres!”
Aid to the U.S.
Senate bill 8, the worst [abortion] restriction in Texas, was enacted on September 1, 2021 [banning abortion after six weeks and placing a bounty on those who helped someone attain the procedure]. Then a week later, on September 7, Mexico’s Supreme Court voted to decriminalize abortion. At that point the U.S. media reached out to interview me, because Las Libres was now a reference point for what the struggle looks like when abortion is criminalized, and how to successfully accompany women in legal actions.
Technically speaking, Guanajuato is even more restrictive than Texas, and has imprisoned women for aborting. That’s when a lightbulb turned on for me. We can’t be implicated [in U.S. abortion bans] because we’re in Mexican territory, outside their jurisdiction. Women in Texas could abort in their homes, just like here — so long as they don’t say anything, nobody will find out, and nobody has to know. Then it was like, of course we can help!
Then the question was, how are we going to do it? We have to get to those women somehow. I spoke with as many people in our accompaniment networks along the Texas–Mexico border as I could. I proposed it to them and everybody was in. There was also an article in the New York Times about our strategy.
All of this led to a ton of women from the United States coming to Las Libres, and it has continued to snowball. I think women find us primarily through the media, and then will visit our website or Facebook page. We’ve even been contacted by people in Texas on our office landline.
Women who have the ability to travel between the two countries can come to Mexico or go to cities along the border to connect with our accompaniment networks. They can get the procedure done in Mexican territory. The other way to do it is through the international networks we have developed for distributing the medicine. Many people who come to Guanajuato or San Miguel from the United States come from states without abortion restrictions, most commonly California and New York. These women usually travel with the medicine and have it ready. When a woman from Texas comes to us, we will contact people we know in the United States who have the medicine and ask them to send it to the person in need. In those cases, our job is to support the woman through the abortion virtually, from Mexico, and to guide and provide them with all the necessary information.
Advice for the U.S.
I think feminism in the United States has been institutionalized. That’s understandable, though, right? Because you had already won the rights, at least on paper. In 2006, when I received an award from Human Rights Watch and went on a multi-city tour across the U.S. and Canada, I often spoke about abortion. Whenever I spoke about accompanying women and girls in Mexico who were survivors of rape, North American audiences would always be shocked to learn that access to abortion was not guaranteed: How could someone be forced to give birth after their rape? They would say, “It’s a good thing that’s an issue we’ve already overcome here.” And I would think to myself, well, not exactly. Then the conversation would shift, and they would ask me what they could do to help us. Here was another problem: Many people were accustomed to saying, “OK, well, I’ll donate money. It’s through money that I can find solutions.” But that’s not right at all. Because I’m confrontational, I would respond, “Well, if you stopped generating problems for [Latin American countries] we wouldn’t need your money. Many of the problems in our countries, especially Mexico, come from you, right? You could help if you better organized yourselves as human beings.” That upset them.
I love that universities have feminist studies — not women’s or gender studies, but feminist studies, with classes about rights and feminism. However, I think people grew comfortable there, in a space where rights had already been won. While they were producing research in the academy the streets were abandoned, and the everyday lives of people, the question of their daily needs, were ignored. Because of the belief that the issues had already been overcome. And now when we see [these abortion bans today], we see that they weren’t overcome, right?
With regards to abortion, I think [these restrictive laws] have already had an effect beyond criminalization and generating lawsuits. In the case of Texas, [S.B. 8] has paralyzed people to the effect of, “Don’t help women, you’ll get in trouble.” If any person can sue you or press charges to aiding in an abortion, you will become afraid and not speak up, instead of saying, “No, this isn’t right, this can’t be sustained!” or “How will we bring this all down?”
Everything [about Las Libres’s approach] sprouted from Guanajuato: We were in this super-restrictive environment and we had to find a solution in the face of the impossible with zero response from the state. In an environment like that, you have to come up with different ideas. You’re forced to imagine alternatives, and as a result you think of more possibilities.
I think the greatest threat to the United States movement is financing; that lawmakers will take away all funding [for providing abortion access] and then sue or [force people to] post heavy bail for accompanying someone to an abortion. This paralyzes rather than mobilizes. It is the intersection of fear and money.
More than advice, [I want to offer] a bit of hope. Anything can be reversed through community organizing. We are more powerful in numbers than those in power, even though they might wield more force. But social organizing, community organizing, and fighting for collective rights will always bring gains for everyone, for a majority. It’s possible.
The case of Mexico is a perfect example of how to take back rights through solidarity. The good news today is that Mexican women are demanding, demanding, demanding, and reporting, reporting, reporting. We’re cornering decision-makers into doing things a different way. Never stop demanding different conditions, that would be my advice.
Verónica Cruz Sánchez is a feminist activist. For over three decades she has fought to decriminalize and destigmatize women’s decisions over their bodies. She is the founder and director of Las Libres and the first Mexican to be named Defender of Human Rights, the highest honor given by Human Rights Watch.
Elizabeth Navarro is the 2022 Verso Books U.S. fellow. She is a translator, editor, and educator from the Southwestern borderlands with over seven years’ experience organizing against mass incarceration and migratory justice.
A version of this article appeared in the e-book We Organize to Change Everything: Fighting for Abortion Access and Reproductive Justice, published by Lux and Verso. Available for free download at: lux-magazine.com.