Colombia’s constitutional court to decide on decriminalizing abortion
Unsafe abortions kill around 70 women each year and 502 minors are currently facing prosecution for seeking terminations
Colombia could become the fourth Latin American country in a year to liberalize abortion if the constitutional court rules favourably on a series of lawsuits. The move would be a major win for public health and the rights of women and girls - but the campaign faces opposition from conservative and religious groups.
Under Colombia’s penal code, women can be sentenced to between one and three years in prison for having an abortion. The procedure has been allowed since 2006 under just three circumstances: fetal malformation, risk to the mother’s life, and sexual abuse.
Currently, the constitutional court is handing three cases: one presented by the CAUSA JUSTA movement, an alliance of more than 80 feminist and women's organizations, and two other civil rights cases.
The lawsuits claim that Colombia’s prohibition on abortion violates the constitution and international law. They argue that the law as it stands violates the rights to health, freedom of conscience and a lay State, the rights of migrant women, and the right to abort even when the current law would allow it. The court is expected to rule on all three cases by January.
Initially, feminist movements in the country have focused on decriminalization. This means that if the court rules in their favour, abortion would no longer be a crime, but the current legal conditions would still apply for those wishing to seek legal terminations in the medical system.
Around 400 Colombian women are prosecuted for aborting each year, a figure which has risen substantially since 2006, according to a report by the University of Los Andes and the Council for the Life and Health of Women. Most are rural women who are reported by their doctors.
A quarter of those convicted of abortion are minors, most of whom live in poverty. Unsafe abortions kill around 70 women each year.
Since December 2020, Argentina, Chile and Mexico have legalized or decriminalized abortion, putting the debate in the spotlight. Regional advocates use the term “voluntary interruption of pregnancy” to combat the stigma associated with the procedure.
In Colombia, conservatives fear that this regional shift will influence the constitutional court. They have focused their efforts in Congress, where they hope a socially conservative majority will be able to apply pressure to the Constitutional Court.
“The lives of the unborn remain at risk with the lawsuit that seeks to decriminalize abortion in all its forms,” tweeted Representative Angela Sánchez of the Radical Change party. “To decriminalize abortion is to open the door to the murder of the most defenseless. No to abortion! Yes to life! ”
“Very appropriate for those who think they are organizing a revolution to promote the murder of babies,” said Colombian Ambassador to the Organization of American States, Alejandro Ordoñez, referring to the campaigners who filed the case. “It inspires new generations to join the true just cause: the defense of life ”.
Both politicians are openly religious and advocate for an absolute ban such as that in force in El Salvador. The Central American country has some of the harshest abortion laws in the world: the practice can be punished with 30 years in prison, and in several cases, women have been jailed for abortion after suffering miscarriages.
In Latin America, abortion continues to be illegal without exception in Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Only in Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana, Argentina and now Chile, is abortion free and legal. In September, Mexico’s supreme court ruled that penalizing abortion was unconstitutional, a major step towards full decriminalization.
Public opinion on the legalization of abortion is divided, according to surveys. A majority prefers to keep the current law, favoring neither absolute restriction nor total decriminalization.
The 2006 ruling legalizing abortion under the three conditions currently recognized under law was kickstarted by women’s organizations, headed up by lawyers from the nonprofit, Women’s Link Worldwide. Since then, the movement has gained new adherents who are driving the demand for decriminalization.
One of the figureheads of the movement is Angela María Robledo, a member of congress and former candidate for Vice President. When Argentina voted to legalize the procedure in December 2020, she was among those celebrating, saying at the time: “This vote encompasses what women, and feminists in particular, have been asking for: sex education so we can decide, contraception so we don’t have to abort, safe abortion so we don’t die.”
She added that the decision would save thousands of women from death, mutilation, or long-term health impacts as a result of backstreet abortions. “It’s a step forward for Latin America and Colombia,” she said. From her position with a minority progressive caucus in congress, she has initiated a number of hearings about the issue, including speakers who oppose legalization.
Human rights organizations such as Temblores, which gained international recognition for its work during Colombia’s recent general strike, have also been closely involved. Its representatives have appeared in front of the constitutional court to speak in favour of women’s right to decide, saying: “There are still obstacles to guaranteeing the fundamental right to [abortion], including the State’s incapacity to offer the service and the criminal prosecution of those who decide to have the procedure even within the legal conditions.”
The high court has up to three months to reach a decision. This is the closest the country has come to establishing that abortion is no longer a crime, especially since both sides of the debate recognize that regional policy is moving towards decriminalization. But it will be the constitutional court that has the final word, a decision which may set precedent in neighbouring countries.
Meanwhile, women in Colombia will continue to pay $200-400 to have the procedure done in secret at a private clinic, if they can afford it, or resort to dangerous backstreet procedures. Women’s movements continue to call for regional solidarity and are hopeful that the 502 underage girls currently facing prosecution for abortion will instead be allowed to grow up with the guarantees and opportunities that will empower them to decide when to become mothers.