States keep voting to expand abortion access. Can Arizona’s pro-life Latinas change that?
Over the last two years, voters in seven states have had a choice to make: expand or restrict access to abortion. In each case, they chose to expand access.
Voters in Arizona will likely be facing the same choice this November with support growing for a ballot measure legalizing abortion in the state. Today, with some exceptions, it is illegal to have an abortion in Arizona after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
What role will Latino Catholics play in the vote? Given that they constitute a third of the state’s residents, Latinos will no doubt be a factor. And if the state’s pro-life Latinas have anything to say about it, Arizona will reject expanding abortion.
“We have a grave situation in Arizona. We need the Latino community to wake up and to stand up against this,” Mayra Rodriguez Villeda, who used to work for Planned Parenthood, told America. “There are a lot of people in the pro-life movement who see things very positively, but if you ask me—and I’ve been involved in the industry—things are not going well at all. They’re tricking people.”
“We have a grave situation in Arizona. We need the Latino community to wake up and to stand up against this.”
The language used matters, she said. Abortion advocates will use terms like “reproductive freedom” to describe access to abortion throughout a nine-month pregnancy. “Oftentimes our people are not familiar with the language,” said Ms. Rodriguez Villeda, the state director of Moms for Arizona.
“Part of the problem is that religious leaders in our Hispanic communities don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “Well, if they don’t want to talk about it, then they should let us come in and talk to the community. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about abortion at the kitchen table or with our neighbors or with our friends at lunch.”
As a group, Latinos have become seemingly more supportive of abortion over the last several years. In 2019, a study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that most religiously-affiliated Latinos are pro-life, including 58 percent of Latino Protestants and 52 percent of Latino Catholics.
But in 2022, in a P.R.R.I. survey taken in the days following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, a different trend emerged. More than 75 percent of Catholic Latinos said abortion should be legal in “most or all cases.” While only 104 participants described themselves as Latino Catholics, the survey nevertheless got the attention of community leaders.
“People have a conscience, but they need more information,” according to Rosie Villegas-Smith, founder of Voces Por La Vida, a binational pro-life group that educates the community about abortion in the United States and Mexico. “They are not ideologues. They are open to changing their stance in favor of life.”
“To some degree, we’re more pro-life in our hearts because we’ve come from countries that respect life.”
Ms. Villegas-Smith believes most voters are in favor of some level of abortion restriction. They end up supporting certain initiatives, she said, because they are misinformed. Voces Por La Vida forms pro-life leaders, including young people and parents. She believes that, as a whole, Latinos are mostly pro-life.
“To some degree, we’re more pro-life in our hearts because we’ve come from countries that respect life,” Ms. Villegas-Smith said, acknowledging recent court decisions in Mexico that decriminalized abortion. “But still, we have to keep in mind that most Mexicans didn’t vote for that.”
Ms. Villegas-Smith doesn’t mince words when talking about abortion providers. “They act as if [abortion] were our only choice. ‘You can’t be successful, you can’t study, you can’t do anything if you have a child.’ How condescending,” she said. “When people get support and they are informed, they can make the right decision. That’s what’s needed to save lives.”
Arizona before and after Roe
Before 1973, when the Supreme Court issued its decision on Roe v. Wade, abortion in Arizona was illegal except in cases when the life of the mother was at stake. After Roe, the state enacted several measures that restricted access to abortion, including informed consent and parental consent. Anticipating that Roe would be overturned, then-Gov. Doug Ducey signed a 15-week ban into law.
The Arizona Supreme Court heard arguments last month regarding the implementation of the older abortion ban. Whatever their ruling, the ballot measure expanding access would override it if it passes.
“The ballot initiative goes far beyond Roe v. Wade,” according to Jake Warner, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom. “The broad exceptions to post-viability abortions would allow for dangerous abortions and inhuman abortion through all nine months of pregnancy. And if you look at the polls, when voters truly understand the impact of laws like this, they don’t want them.”
Ron Johnson, the executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, made similar observations.
“We could be going from a very pro-life situation to the other end of the spectrum, which is troublesome,” he said. “Most people don’t want to go that extreme, but I think that’s why the wording is the way it is. Because [abortion rights advocates] know that, too.”
“We are concerned with all human life. It begins at conception, but it doesn’t end there.”
At the same time, Mr. Johnson stressed that abortion is not the only issue of interest for the church. He noted advocacy against the death penalty and support for adoptions and foster care, as well as Walking With Moms In Need, a parish-based initiative for pregnant and parenting mothers in tough situations.
“The role of the church is tremendously important in upholding the life and dignity of all people,” he said. “We are concerned with all human life. It begins at conception, but it doesn’t end there.”
Care for mothers should not end after an abortion, either, according to Judith Villegas, who works with Rachel’s Vineyard’s Spanish-language program in Phoenix. Rachel’s Vineyard organizes “supportive, confidential and non-judgemental” retreats for women who have had an abortion, according to its website.
Ms. Villegas has a personal connection to abortion. She’s had two.
“For many people, going to get an abortion, it’s something we just want to leave in the past. We try to forget it. But in my experience with others, the pain eventually comes, sometimes years later,” she said.
In her case, she experienced depression and had suicidal thoughts.
“In the very moment of my first abortion, I felt it. But I tried to ignore it,” she said. Ms. Villegas was eight weeks pregnant.
“They give you some pills, and then you take more at home. And that’s when everything starts to detach inside,” she explained. “I actually saw the little baby. He was already formed. You could see his little eyes.”
It was traumatic, Ms. Villegas said, because she realized that “it’s not what they tell you. It’s not just a bunch of cells.”
“Years later, I did it again,” she said. “I thought it was the best option.”
Ms. Villegas said she began to live a promiscuous life. “I was looking for something, but I didn’t know what. So I sought comfort in the company of another to try to fill that emptiness I had,” she said. “But I didn’t know why. And then afterward, I felt worse.”
Three years later, Ms. Villegas returned to church. Rachel’s Vineyard helped her find healing and forgiveness from God and her babies. “It’s a retreat for people who like me one day took that decision and they live with that trauma and secret—for it remains a secret for many,” she said.
"We say we’re pro-life, but we seem not to want to get involved.”
Ms. Villegas said those who come to Rachel’s Vineyard, like her, struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts. They also suffer from anxiety, addiction to alcohol, drugs, and sex and struggle with nightmares.
“In reality, I believe it’s very few women who do not eventually feel it,” she said of women who have had an abortion. “I don’t believe any women don’t eventually feel it at some moment in their life.”
That pain is too often absent from discussions about expanding access to abortion, she said.
“We say that we are pro-life, but in the end, we leave it up to each person to do what is most convenient for them. We say we’re pro-life, but we seem not to want to get involved,” she said.
“It’s a responsibility to speak for those who are not yet born, but also to defend pregnant women, to get them the help they need.”
So if a woman gets thrown out of her house because she chooses to keep the baby, pro-life advocates must be there for her, Ms. Villegas said. If she needs money, pro-life advocates should provide it.
“That’s where it’s hard and people step away,” she said. It’s even more difficult for immigrants.
“We come here to work, and here we certainly live a working life,” Ms. Villegas said. “To then take on another responsibility, on top of work, on top of the house, on top of children, it’s complicated. So people like to say they’re pro-life, but say it from a distance without getting too involved.”
But for Ms. Villegas and other pro-life Latinas in Arizona, that’s not good enough.