Colombia becomes the last country in Latin America to partially decriminalize abortion

By Stefano Pozzebon, Kara Fox and Megan Janetsky, CNN

Colombia became the latest Latin American country to partially decriminalize abortion on Monday, marking a major victory for feminist movements in the country and reflecting a broader shift in views on the procedure across the region.

The country’s Constitutional Court has ruled in favor of legalizing abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, the top court said in a statement.

Abortion rights advocates responded Monday with marches in the capital, Bogota, and other major cities, after campaigning for two decades to remove abortion from the country’s criminal code.

“We knew it was not an easy fight, but at some point it had to happen,” said Mariana Ardila, a women’s rights activist and lawyer who signed the petition to decriminalize abortion. “Of course, while we were hoping for full decriminalization, and we will continue to fight for that, this is an important step forward for us,” Ardila told CNN, surrounded by women’s rights activists outside the court on Monday. evening.

The Colombian Supreme Court decision follows recent decisions by the Supreme Court of Mexico and the Argentine Senate to decriminalize abortion.

Abortion in Colombia is only legal in three circumstances: when the life or health of the woman is in danger, if the fetus has malformations that make it non-viable, or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or of incest.

From now on, women wishing to have an abortion up to the 24th week of their pregnancy will not be prosecuted, the court said. Abortion after 24 weeks remains illegal unless one of these three circumstances is present.

Since 2006, women seeking to terminate a pregnancy outside of these circumstances could face up to 54 months in prison under Colombia’s penal code. While jail sentences have been rare, abortion rights advocates say criminalizing the practice creates a climate of fear and suspicion between patients and the medical class, who often feel compelled to report abortions. authorities for fear of participating in a crime.

Hundreds of women in Colombia are investigated for having illegal abortions each year. Others resort to clandestine abortions, a ubiquitous and often dangerous practice in the rest of the region.

Even women who are medically entitled to an abortion have faced barriers accessing treatment in Colombia. Alejandra Gutierrez, a 23-year-old cancer patient from Bogota, told CNN her case had to go through a roundtable between a gynecologist, hematologist and psychiatrist before her request was approved.

Throughout the process, she says she received little clear information about the risks of terminating the pregnancy or carrying the baby to term during chemotherapy treatment.

Only after three weeks and numerous interviews was she allowed to terminate the pregnancy. “I felt so vulnerable, so small, and I still feel like I never really got to the bottom of it. My fear was that it started to grow, inside my belly, then it was too late, I was scared to death.” she told CNN in November.

Beyond the law, pregnant women in Colombia have faced bureaucratic delays, negative attitudes and medical staff who refuse to perform the procedure under a “conscientious objection” clause.

A regional assessment

In Latin America, where the Catholic Church remains a major influence, society has long been hostile to women seeking abortions. However, two landmark decisions in Argentina and Mexico signal a growing shift in thinking about procedure.

In September, Mexico’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that criminalizing abortion is unconstitutional, a decision that should set a precedent for the legal status of abortion nationwide. And in December 2020, Argentina’s Senate voted to legalize abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy, making the country the largest country in Latin America at the time to legalize the practice.

Nations where legal procedure is often become vital destinations for women seeking care that they cannot receive in their home country. Cuba, Uruguay, French Guiana and Guyana also allow choice of abortions, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, allows abortion only if the person’s life is in danger or when the pregnancy is the result of rape. El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname prohibit abortion in almost all circumstances. In Costa Rica and Guatemala, abortions are only allowed if it is to preserve the person’s health or help save their life. In Panama, the procedure is only allowed to preserve the health or life of the mother in the event of rape or fetal malformation. Just last week, the Ecuadorian Congress approved a bill allowing access to abortion – if the pregnancy is the result of rape – up to 12 weeks of pregnancy for women in areas urban and up to 16 weeks for minors and adults in rural areas. However, the bill has yet to be signed into law by the Ecuadorian president, who has threatened to veto it.

In Colombia, a woman told CNN she was forced to leave the country in 2017 to have an abortion after becoming pregnant at age 15, she asked for her name not to be due to sensitivity and the stigma of the issue there.

“I was really scared, you go into a state of complete panic when this happens, how can you think clearly about anything in this state?” she says. She was still in high school at the time.

However, her mother agreed to help her get to Mexico City, where the practice was legal long before it became national law. “I was lucky: my mother is not in favor of abortion and was very disappointed, but she supported me anyway. She had a good job at the time, so we could afford to fly to Mexico and stay there for a week to do it. But a lot of others can’t do that,” she told CNN.

“We all know a woman who has had an abortion, it’s just that no one knows who she is. We don’t talk about it because it’s still a taboo, secret, but everyone knows it,” she said.

Social taboos and public shaming around the issue remain ongoing barriers to abortion education and access, according to abortion rights activists.

“It’s also about changing mindsets,” said Dr Laura Gil, a gynecologist in Bogota, who signed one of the petitions to Colombia’s Constitutional Court to change the law. “We’re not trying to change people’s minds about abortion – it’s an issue that’s only important for women facing an unwanted pregnancy.

“It’s about making people understand that regardless of their opinion, abortion is a right,” she said.

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