How Do Pro-Life Latinas Feel About Abortion? It's Complicated

Illustrated by Tristan Offit
The mainstream narrative around Latinxs and abortion goes something like this: Because most people within the Latinx community are deeply religious and have roots in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws, they will inevitably oppose a woman’s right to choose. And because they hold these anti-abortion beliefs, conservative politicians will try to sway them with their anti-choice stances.
But like anything with the Latinx population in the United States — a community of nearly 58 million strong with roots in more than 30 countries — things are a bit more complicated than that.
For this story, Refinery29 spoke with several Latinas across the country who identify as pro-life to find out how they truly feel about abortion. What we found is that having a pro-life stance is an increasingly nuanced experience among young Latinas: Some want abortion to be completely illegal, others feel there should be exceptions, and there are those who feel lawmakers should be focused instead on making birth control accessible and childcare affordable. Overall, they also don’t view themselves as single-issue voters, which could have major implications in upcoming elections.
So that conventional wisdom about Latinxs and abortion? Maybe it’s time to throw it out the window.
Maria Oswalt grew up in a conservative-leaning household in Alabama where the topic of abortion wasn’t discussed, but there was a silent understanding that the right answer was to be against it. The 23-year-old told Refinery29 she thinks of herself as pro-life, but it wasn’t until college that she truly explored the issue.
“The more research I did, the more pro-life I became,” she said. “From my perspective, abortion is currently the most widespread act of violence happening in the country. My priority is to prevent and reduce that violence.”
While Oswalt does believe that Roe v. Wade should be overturned and lawmakers should advance more abortion restrictions, she also thinks that should go hand-in-hand with developments such as paid family leave policies and easier access to birth control.
“It should be absolutely unthinkable that a woman would ever feel that it’s necessary to kill her own child in order to avoid poverty,” she said. “It’s crucial to hold politicians accountable whenever there’s pro-life legislation proposed, so the women in these situations are cared for and get the necessary resources.”
Camila Salcedo, an 18-year-old student at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, agrees that abortion should be illegal. Her stance on abortion is a hard one: Salcedo, who grew up in Colombia, doesn’t believe there should be exceptions for rape or incest. If the mother’s life is in danger or there are fetal abnormalities, she thinks exceptions should be observed only on a case-by-case basis.
“I do not support a procedure that deliberately kills a human being to increase the probability of surviving of another human being,” she told Refinery29.
She also thinks that in the event that abortion were illegal, women should be criminalized in some instances. But despite her extreme position on abortion, Salcedo is open to legislation that supports mothers-to-be — just like Oswalt. She particularly highlighted legislation that helps underprivileged pregnant women and that makes the adoption process easier.
“If a woman thinks she can’t afford children because of societal circumstances,” Salcedo said, “there’s something wrong with society.”
Although abortion rates have declined in recent years, the procedure is still common: Research has found that about one in four women will have an abortion by the age of 45. When it comes to the Latinx community and abortion, a study in the American Journal of Public Health found that in 2014 there were 18.1 abortions per 1,000 Latinx women of reproductive age. (For the sake of comparison, the rate for Black women was 27.1 abortions and white women had the lowest rate at 10 abortions.)
According to the most recent data by the Pew Research Center, about 49% of Latinxs in the U.S. believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. But Jessica González-Rojas, executive director at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), challenges those numbers, saying they don’t paint a complete picture.
“I think there’s an issue with the framing,” González-Rojas told Refinery29.
González-Rojas said she doesn’t think the terms “pro-life” and "pro-choice" resonate with the Latinx community in the way that they have been politically constructed in the U.S. First, she argued, there’s no translation in Spanish to describe having a pro-choice stance. And there’s also the cultural framing to consider: González-Rojas said that some Latinxs in communities she’s worked with don’t have the political consciousness to know what “pro-life” means in relation to abortion, so they take it at face value. She implied that the data shows many Latinxs fall into the “personally pro-life, politically in favor of women’s right to choose” camp.
The data sort of confirms this: According to a 2016 NLIRH report, 30% of Latinxs identified as pro-life and 25% said they were pro-choice. But the remaining people — about 45% — said they didn’t identify with either, subscribed to both, or weren’t sure about the terms.
González-Rojas said that just asking whether someone is pro- or anti-abortion oversimplifies how Latinxs view this issue. The NLIRH study found that 67% of the respondents didn’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned and 54% said they could imagine a scenario in which abortion could be the right choice for them or their partner.
“The real question is: ‘Should women have the right to make the decision about abortion? Or should that decision be taken away?’ And given that politicians are making that decision, [we ask], ‘Is that right?’” González-Rojas said. “What we found are high rates of folks who disagreed with these assessments.”
Illustrated by Tristan Offit
For the longest time, Latinxs in the U.S. have been treated as a monolith. When it comes to politics, candidates talk about the “Latinx vote” — in which immigration and the economy are the main issues for those constituents. Of course, that is not true: The Latinx community is increasingly diverse. That means some political issues that might be important for some groups might not be as crucial for others. (For example, immigration might mean something different for a Honduran-American whose family has Temporary Protective Status versus someone from Puerto Rico, since they’re natural-born U.S. citizens.)
Among all the other generalizations about Latinxs, one that has stuck is that since they are more socially conservative they will vote for anti-abortion candidates — which is sometimes true.
For someone like Oswalt, the young woman from Alabama who describes herself as pro-life, a candidate’s stance on abortion is important. At least, to an extent.
“I’m not going to vote for just anybody who uses the pro-life label, especially if I find them to be more harmful to the movement than helpful,” she said. “But it definitely plays a role in my decision-making as a voter.”
She said she didn’t vote for President Donald Trump in 2016, for example. (Trump's position on abortion has evolved over the years. While in 1999 he identified himself as pro-choice, he now calls himself pro-life and has promised to appoint conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court so they can overturn Roe v. Wade.)
During the past special election in the state, Oswalt didn’t support Republican candidate Roy Moore, who while anti-choice, also stood credibly accused of child molestation and sexual assault. But the 23-year-old, who identifies as Catholic, couldn’t bring herself to vote for Democrat Doug Jones either.
Jones’ pro-choice stance — even though he supported Alabama's current laws, which ban most late-term abortion procedures — was a dealbreaker for her. She ended up writing in a candidate.
“He was otherwise pretty agreeable, willing to find bipartisan solutions to issues,” she said about Jones. “But he had an extreme pro-choice stance on abortion and I couldn’t compromise with that.”
Other women are more willing to compromise on this issue. The same 2016 study by the NLIRH found that about 61% of Latinx voters strongly agree that politicians shouldn’t interfere with a woman’s right to choose.
This is the case for 22-year-old Stephanie Alvarez, who views abortion as a spiritual issue and not a political one. That means she doesn’t really consider a candidate’s stance on abortion crucial because she believes there should be less government intervention on this issue.
“Of course I’m pro-life, but I understand that for medical reasons, abortion can be necessary for some women,” she said. “I don’t think that judging that should be in the government’s hands.”
Alvarez, who lives in California, also thinks that she would rather see lawmakers dedicate resources to supporting families and mothers-to-be. One aspect that she emphasized was comprehensive sex education, saying it could help prevent unintended pregnancies and also abortions.
Unlike other women who spoke with Refinery29, Alvarez doesn’t think abortion should be illegal.
“How can I say ‘ban abortion’ if you have a case where a 14-year-old girl got pregnant because she was raped? Would it make sense for her to keep the child? I don’t know,” she said. “But how would you tell a child to deal with that pregnancy? That poses the question of whether abortion should not be illegal.”
The issue of legality versus compassion is one that Hailie Calderón, 22, keeps coming back to. She lives in Texas, a state where conservative politicians have enacted some of the most restrictive abortion laws in recent years. On one hand, she believes that abortion is murder. But at the same time, she firmly believes that women have a right to choose and lawmakers — particularly male ones — shouldn’t have a say in that decision.
“That’s not their call to make,” she told Refinery29.
For Calderón, who identifies as Catholic, the issue of abortion is an extremely personal one. One of her closest family members had an abortion decades ago and has struggled with her decision since then. (Though research shows that about 95% of women don’t regret having an abortion, it’s important to recognize that everyone’s experience is different.) And due to some medical conditions, including endometriosis, Calderón is not sure she will ever be able to conceive.
Adoption, she reasoned, should be the first option women should consider if they don’t wish to be mothers. Calderón added that since she believes the Latinx community tends to be tight-knit, women who find themselves facing an unintended pregnancy will be supported no matter what.
“You’re a woman in 2018,” she said of how conditions are better for women now than in previous decades. “You are empowered.”
But for many women, it’s not that simple: Pregnancy in the U.S. is expensive, reasonable paid family leave policies are hard to come by, there’s an exorbitant cost to raising a family, and there are obstacles such as the motherhood penalty. Moreover, about 60% of women who have abortions are already mothers — which means they understand the financial and emotional implications of raising a child firsthand.
When it comes to the abortion-versus-adoption debate, research has found that most women don’t make the choice between those two paths. According to a study published by Women’s Health Issues, the publication of the Jacobs Institute of Women's Health, the birth mothers surveyed “were most often choosing between adoption and parenting, not adoption and abortion. Most participants would have preferred to parent, but did not because of external variables.”
Despite this, adoption is one of the main paths for which pro-life Latinas we interviewed and the young pro-life movement as a whole is pushing. What differentiates them from old-school pro-life advocates — and even anti-choice politicians — is that they’re also pushing against traditional ideas around birth control, sex ed, and federal support for mothers.
“Whenever there’s pro-life legislation and restrictions on abortion,” Oswalt said, “there has to be legislation that helps mothers in this country.”
At their core, pro-life Latinas are a reflection of the Latinx community as a whole. And since the community is no monolith, maybe it’s time society stops treating these women as such.
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