skip to Main Content

Having won the right to abortion, Colombian activists are pressuring health institutions to do so

Causa Justa activists outside the Colombian Constitutional Court

In February, Colombia introduced one of the world’s most liberal abortion laws after activists took it to court – but their challenge now is to ensure the healthcare system is able to deliver. terminations of pregnancy.

Not so long ago, abortion in Colombia was a taboo subject that could not be brought up at dinner parties or family gatherings, according to Florence Thomas, one of the most influential voices of Colombian feminism.

“It was considered such a difficult topic that people would get up and leave my lectures when I brought it up,” Thomas said. Monitoring of health policies.

16 years ago, in 2006, Colombian lawyer Mónica Roa challenged the country’s comprehensive abortion ban in the Constitutional Court and obtained decriminalization abortion on three grounds: when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest; when there was a severe malformation of the fetus; and when the pregnancy posed a health risk to the woman.

“This decision changed the course of history,” says Thomas, because it showed that the legal vehicle to fight for safe abortions was not Congress, but the Constitutional Court, Colombia’s highest court.

Since then, feminist movements and pro-choice lawyers like Roa have fought to expand the decriminalization of abortion in Colombia.

Trial against barrier gestures

In 2020, just cause (“Just Cause”), a movement of more than 100 organizations and 140 activists united to legalize abortion, filed a complaint against the criminalization of early termination of pregnancy.

Instead of proposing a whole new regime of laws that would have to pass through Congress, they sought to regulate abortion within the rules already in place and therefore would not depend on politicians.

Causa Justa showed that, despite the 2006 reforms, abortion remained a crime in the Penal Code, putting it beyond the reach of most women. The Causa Justa trial, supported by more than 100 national and international experts, have also shown that nearly 400 women are sentenced each year for having or seeking to have an abortion, with sentences ranging from 16 to 54 months in prison. Between 2006 and 2019, more than 5,700 women were charged with abortion.

Causa Justa lawyers also showed judges that criminalization forced women to seek out unsanitary and unsafe underground abortion clinics. According to the Colombian Observatory of Public Health and Epidemiology, one of the main causes of the death of more than 400 women from hemorrhage in 2020 was unsafe and illegal abortions.

Between 59% and 70% of complaints filed against women seeking abortions came from health workers, says Mariana Ardila, a lawyer for Women’s Link, one of the organizations that are part of Causa Justa.

Abortion providers could also face charges, which has caused most medical professionals to refuse to perform abortions.

Very tight judgment

This sad reality changed with the new ruling in February this year, which established that abortion will only be an offense after the 24th week of pregnancy.

“The women won,” the plaintiffs said after learning of the decision, surrounded by chants of, “It’s a law!” It’s a law! It is a law. »

The judgment is historic because successive Colombian governments have never legislated on an issue that they do not consider to be a priority or beneficial because of the controversy it generates in the streets.

Colombia is a secular but deeply religious country. A 2017 survey revealed that 97% of citizens believe in God and that the various churches, mainly Catholic and Evangelical, have enormous power over believers, pushing them into an all-out fight against abortion.

In its final phase, the judges of the Constitutional Court voted on the lawsuit, and the vote was very close: five judges were in favor and four against. With this last word, the court proved that Colombia is changing. Today, only 20% of the population approves of women going to jail if they have an abortion.

Unprepared health services

The Court also ruled that the government should implement a global public policy concerning access to safe and legal abortions in the “shortest possible time”. However, to date, such a policy has not been fully defined and executed.

The Colombian Ministry of Health recognizes that barriers to abortion persist and are mainly associated with denial of services – mainly due to ignorance of the changed legal framework and the abusive exercise of conscientious objection by staff medical.

On September 28, he published a document with instructions on how to strengthen sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion, which was aimed at all entities that are part of the health system.

Colombia is part of a “green wave” of countries in the region that have moved to expand their freedom of abortion, but it allows abortion much later than its regional counterparts.

Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled late last year that it was unconstitutional to criminalize abortion. However, each state must regulate the decision of the Supreme Court.

In Argentina, Congress approved the legality of abortion up to 14 weeks and, as in Colombia, lifted restrictions that allowed abortion only in cases of rape or when the mother’s health is in jeopardy. danger.

Meanwhile, the Ecuadorian National Assembly approved a bill that allows abortions if they result from rape up to the 12th week, but President Guillermo Lasso vetoed it, saying he respects “life by design”.

Colombia’s decision is, however, a historic victory for Colombia’s women’s movement, which has been fighting for decades to have their rights recognized in a traditional, ultra-Catholic country. The next step is for the public policy to be fully rolled out across the country and serve as a model for the region.

Mesa por la Vida y la Salud de las Mujeresa feminist collective that advocates for women’s sexual and reproductive rights, said that in the first months of 2022, they helped more than 90 women overcome barriers while seeking an abortion within the parameters of the new law.

Alejandra* (pseudonym) is an example. She requested an abortion in her sixth week of pregnancy, but ultimately only got one in her 11th week. She says the procedure was slow and painful and the doctors did not provide clear information about the process.

The figures show that there is still a long way to go for women in Colombia and that the famous slogan of the feminist march, “we want sex education to decide, that contraceptives avoid abortion and that legal abortion does not die “, will still resonate in the streets, the mountains, the buildings and the legislative entities until the Colombian women can feel free to decide, without contest, of their body.

Image credits: Causa Justa.

Fight the infodemic in health information and support reporting on health policies from the Global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connects the dots between regional realities and major global debates, with evidence-based, open-access information and analysis. To make a personal or organizational contribution, click here on PayPal.

Back To Top