How (Failed) Movements Matter: Abortion, Incarceration, and the Institutionalization of Movement Outcomes in Central America
In Latin America, a counter-revolutionary backlash has produced new laws that constitutionalize fetal personhood, criminalize medically necessary abortions, and prosecute women who have stillbirths as murderers. This paper examines the consequences of these legal transformations by comparing the theoretically important cases of El Salvador and Nicaragua. On the books, El Salvador and Nicaragua have nearly identical abortion legislation—no abortions, no exceptions; not even when a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life. Yet despite these legal similarities, the two countries differ strikingly in the laws’ implementation. Within one year of passing its absolute abortion ban, El Salvador began aggressively prosecuting and incarcerating women for abortion and abortion-related “homicides.” In Nicaragua, by contrast, the abortion ban of 2006 has yet to result in women’s imprisonment. Why? Combining court-level data, activist interviews, politician interviews, and an analysis of 25 years of newspaper articles about abortion from each country, I argue that it was the emergence of a small pro-choice movement in Nicaragua that protected women from prosecution for abortion-related “crimes.” This small assembly of pro-choice feminists protected women not because they successfully transformed policy or public opinion—they didn’t—but rather because they themselves became a target for the attacks of the economically and politically powerful pro-life movement, providing a buffer for the most vulnerable women. In addition to extending our knowledge about whether and how movements “matter,” this paper develops sociological theory of the governance of gender by demonstrating the powerful effects of political discourse on state institutions.