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Colombia was close to legalizing abortion. Instead, a top court kept restrictions in place.

A sign that reads “Abortion Free” is seen outside the Colombian constitutional court in Bogota on March 2 during a rally in support of legal and safe abortions. (Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters)

Colombia’s constitutional court ruled Monday to keep the country’s abortion restrictions in place, dashing the hopes of activists pushing for a decision that could have made it the first and most populous state in Latin America to legalize abortions during the first 16 weeks of a pregnancy.

The decision “was a missed opportunity to stand on the right side of history to provide Colombian women and girls safe access to abortion,” human rights lawyer Paula Avila-Guillen said in a statement. She described the current law as “poorly regulated and rarely implemented,” such that for “women who have been victims of sexual abuse or face economic barriers, access to abortion is almost impossible, which puts their lives at risk.”

Abortion rights activists seized on what they described as the ruling’s silver lining: It underscored that the country cannot roll back the abortion guarantees already in place.

“We are not going to go back” to an all-out abortion ban, said Catalina Martínez Coral, the regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global legal advocacy organization. “That’s not a possibility.”

The last time the country of nearly 50 million came close to a major change on abortion rights was in 2006, when the top court legalized abortion in three cases: a pregnancy resulting from rape, a risk to the mother’s life, or a malformed fetus.

Though limited, that ruling made Colombia’s policy more liberal than those of most other Latin American countries at the time. Throughout the region, the Catholic Church has opposed expanding abortion rights. Abortions are outright banned in Honduras, Nicaragua, Suriname, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Haiti and are legal only in Cuba, Uruguay and some parts of Mexico within the first trimester.

Mexico is taking steps toward legalizing abortion. But across Latin America, restrictions remain widespread.

“The truth is that women don’t need abortion; what they need is companionship and support,” Archbishop Luis Rueda Aparicio of Popayan wrote in a statement after Monday’s ruling, as reported by Catholic News Service.

In Colombia last year, antiabortion activist Natalia Bernal Cano filed an appeal to repeal the law allowing abortions in those three limited circumstances. She argued that abortion was a form of torture. Instead of rolling back abortion rights, however, Cano set into motion a legal case that raised a different question: Was the 2006 abortion law compatible with the constitution’s guarantee of women’s rights, or was it too restrictive?

In the years since the 2006 ruling, the debate about abortion and reproductive rights in Colombia has shifted dramatically, said Mariana Ardila, a Colombian lawyer specializing in the issue at Women’s Link Worldwide, a nongovernmental organization.

“There is more room for women to share their stories,” she said. “And there is room for more arguments about social injustice and discrimination against poor women, related to international rights standards, or data that is coming from countries where abortion is more free, like Uruguay and Spain.”

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Colombia’s abortion rights campaigners received a boost Sunday from Argentine President Alberto Fernández, who announced that he intends to send to the legislature within 10 days a bill to legalize abortion.

“The state must protect its citizens in general and women in particular,” he said. “Society in the 21st century needs to respect the individual choice of its members to freely decide about their bodies.”

A similar bill failed to pass in August of 2018, but activists said there’s a crucial difference this time: the president’s support.

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In contrast, activists in Colombia were counting on the court to change the law, Ardila said. Colombia’s constitutional court has called on Congress to regulate abortions to ensure that those with the legal right to the procedure have access in practice, in accordance with the 2006 ruling. But barriers remain.

Colombia’s constitutional court is the highest court in the country and cannot be overruled by Congress or the president. It has a reputation as a comparatively activist body keen to protect key provisions of the 1991 constitution, such as women’s rights and the freedom of religion. The present court has three female justices, the most ever to sit on the panel at once.

Colombian President Iván Duque opposes abortion, though the mayor of Bogota, Claudia López Hernández, has been outspoken in her support of women’s having access to the procedure. Editorials and newspaper columnists have been discussing the ruling, and protesters on both sides took to the streets.

Hopes rose that the law might be changed when Alejandro Linares Cantillo, the judge responsible for drafting the decision, issued a formal proposal on Feb. 19 calling for all abortions to be allowed in the first 16 weeks of pregnancy, as a matter of compliance with the constitution. The judges then heard testimony for several weeks.

Avila-Guillen said she had worked with and heard from many woman who met the legal criteria for abortion under the current law and tried to have the procedure — but were turned away or delayed.

“If you live in Bogota and you have middle income, you can access abortion more easily,” she said. “But there’s more evidence coming out in recent years that barriers to abortion remain very, very high.”

Women turned away by the public health system can have abortions at private clinics, but only if they can pay.

Doctors Without Borders told ABC News that 88 percent of the 428 women and girls who sought abortions through the medical group in 2017 and 2018 reported encountering at least one barrier to obtaining the service.

At least six of the court’s nine justices supported the 2006 ruling, which campaigners had hoped would bode well for this week’s case. Still, said Martínez Coral of the Center for Reproductive Rights, by Monday afternoon, before the court’s announcement, there were signs that the justices in favor of expanding abortion rights were one vote short of a majority.

Ardila had hoped Colombia would wake up Tuesday “as one of the countries leading in Latin America in reproductive rights.” Still, she maintained, the case “has allowed many people to express their agreement with safer access to abortion.”