Bogotá – Colombia – “Ye es ley.” Now it’s the law.
It was the chant that echoed outside Colombia’s Constitutional Court building on Monday in a sea of green handkerchiefs.
In a landmark decision, the court decriminalized abortion procedures up to 24 weeks gestation, paving the way for greater access to abortion in this predominantly Catholic country.
For 15 years, Colombian law only allowed abortions in three circumstances: if the mother’s life was in danger, if the pregnancy was the product of rape, or if the fetus was fatally deformed. After 24 weeks, these same three exceptions apply.
“There isn’t a single woman in Colombia who doesn’t know someone who had to have a clandestine abortion,” said Marisol Rivera, 29, who stood in court on Monday with a green handkerchief symbolizing labor rights. -abortion. movement.
“But little by little we are changing that.”
The case came as a feminist “green wave”, referring to the bright green bandanas of pro-choice sport advocates, is sweeping through Latin America.
Although built on decades of work by feminist activists across the region, the recent wave first gathered pace in Argentina, which in December 2020 passed legislation to legalize abortion, and in Mexico. , which decriminalized the procedure in September.
Other countries like Ecuador have also recently relaxed laws to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape.
Advocates said this represents a major step forward for women’s rights in the region, especially as other countries in Latin America are considering similar cases.
“This is a wake up call for women’s rights,” said Paula Avila-Guillen, executive director of the Women’s Equality Center. “We came at a time when we were tired of being left behind…and we just started to claim our rights. For many years we just waited.
Conservative former president Alvaro Uribe and other anti-abortion groups denounced the decision, with Uribe saying on Twitter “this decision deeply offends the highest group of (Colombian) citizens.”
Jose Jaime Uscátegui, a conservative congressman, tweeted a video standing outside the court on Monday, throwing rolls of toilet paper at the court building.
“This is a crime. Why do Colombian citizens have to sit here in silence…while five judges make a decision on behalf of 50 million Colombians,” he said in the video.
The Colombia case was based on a lawsuit brought by an umbrella group of 100 organizations, called Causa Justa Por el Aborto (“Just Cause for Abortion”), which sought to eliminate abortion from the penal code. Colombian and to have it regulated by health laws.
Previously, women could face 16 to 54 months in prison for terminating a pregnancy that did not fall under the three exceptions.
For decades, the procedure was completely banned in the South American country.
Beatriz Quintero, co-founder of La Mesa por la Vida y la Salud de las Mujeres (“Table for Women’s Life and Health”), one of the organizations listed in the case, suffered a clandestine abortion at the age of 18 years old in the 1970s when the procedure was criminalized.
Quintero, now 69, said she was lucky to have sanitary conditions during her procedure, but was scared knowing she could face criminal charges and that she had no guarantee of safety.
“Many women do not have the same conditions [in their abortions], and they suffer from it,” she said. “There are women who gather resources, who hide them from their families, who have no support.”
Each year, 760,000 women in Latin America are treated for complications from clandestine abortions, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute. These abortions represent one in 10 maternal deaths in the region.
In 2006, the Colombian Constitutional Court overturned this ban and partially decriminalized abortion under the above three conditions. On paper, Colombian laws seemed more liberal than those of neighboring countries.
But women – especially in poorer and rural areas – face a maze of legal and physical barriers and stigma that make accessing the procedure virtually impossible.
While women in more left-leaning urban centers like Bogota have easier access to the procedure, in more conservative rural areas women are often unaware of their rights and restrictions are often interpreted much more rigidly.
Some fear that access and enforcement of regulations will continue to be divided.
Most abortions performed in Colombia are done clandestinely, according to Causa Justa, which makes them dangerous.
Criminal abortion cases have only increased since the law was changed in 2006, according to a recent report by La Mesa por la Vida y la Salud. Criminal abortion cases jumped 320%, from 130 in 2005, when there was still a total ban, to 416 in 2018.
Minors and rural women were disproportionately criminalized, according to the report, and at least 42% of those prosecuted were victims of gender-based violence.
Monday’s court ruling marked a symbolic step forward for the region and could spill over to countries like Chile, where abortion is highly restricted and whose president-elect Gabriel Boris has promised to make the procedure freely available.
Yet the issue continues to divide Colombia and much of the region.
About 60% of Colombians support legalizing the procedure, but only a quarter think abortion should be completely legalized without limits like those currently in place, according to an IPSOS poll from September.
In 2020, when the court was last considering another abortion case that upheld the previous law, the country’s right-wing president, Ivan Duque, said expanding access to abortion would be a ” very difficult change.
“I am pro-life. I believe life begins at conception,” he said.
Despite Argentina’s legalization, many doctors in the country continued to refuse to perform the procedure on moral grounds, raising concerns among observers that the same could happen in Colombia or Mexico.
“There will always be a physician who will exercise conscientious objection,” said Paula Avila-Guillen of the Women’s Equality Center.
Yet for Quintero, who had a clandestine abortion decades ago, the decision marks a sign of change not just in his country, but across the region.
“These decisions show that the world is moving forward,” Quintero said.