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Colombia court decriminalizes abortion, adding to regional momentum

The country follows Mexico and Argentina as the third in Latin America to expand abortion rights in just over a year

Colombia became the latest country in Latin America to partially decriminalize abortion on Feb. 21, following Mexico and Argentina. (Video: Reuters)
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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombia’s constitutional court voted Monday to decriminalize abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, a transformative shift for the majority-Catholic country and the latest sign of a turning tide in Latin America.

The ruling makes Colombia the third large country in the region to decriminalize the procedure in slightly more than a year, after Mexico and Argentina, a development that appeared unlikely just a few years ago. Abortion rights activists said it could fuel further gains for abortion rights in the region.

As the final vote was confirmed on Monday afternoon, large crowds of abortion rights supporters celebrated outside the court in the capital of Bogotá, waving green scarves as they jumped up and down, shouting, “It’s legal, it’s legal, abortion in Colombia is legal!”

“Today, women in this country have won,” said Catalina Martínez Coral, regional director of the Center for Reproductive Rights, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit before the court. Her words were nearly drowned out by the cheers of women around her outside the court. “This is a historic decision for Latin America and the Caribbean, and will serve as a beacon for the constitutional and supreme courts of the region.”

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Since 2006, the procedure has been permitted in Colombia in cases of rape, nonviable pregnancy and when the life or health of the mother was in danger. At the time, those rules positioned the country as a regional leader in abortion rights. But between 2006 and 2020, the court heard, nearly 3,000 people were prosecuted for having an abortion.

More than 90 groups filed a lawsuit in September 2020, arguing that the criminalization of abortion exacerbates the stigma around the procedure and creates barriers to access, even for patients who qualify under the exemptions.

The constitutional court was legally obligated to issue a ruling on abortion by mid-November 2021. But the decision was delayed after a judge requested a recusal for comments he publicly made about the subject. The remaining eight judges were evenly split, forcing the court to assign two additional judges to break the tie — one for each of the two lawsuits before the court.

On Monday, one of these tiebreaking judges voted in favor of expanding access, leading to a 5-to-4 vote to allow abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. The court also asked Congress to create regulations to apply the ruling.

Until early last year, elective abortion was legal in Latin America only in Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana and parts of Mexico. Other countries allow the procedure only in cases of rape or when the health or life of the pregnant person is at risk. Seven countries prohibit it under all circumstances: El Salvador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Suriname and Haiti.

Argentine President Alberto Fernández signed legislation last year to allow abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. Mexico’s supreme court in September ruled unconstitutional a state law that imposed prison terms for people who had illegal abortions and those who aided them. The ruling is binding on other states.

As Latin American countries move to expand abortion rights, lawmakers in the United States are racing to restrict them. Republican-led states such as Florida, Arizona and West Virginia have advanced bills to ban abortion after 15 weeks, as the Supreme Court weighs whether to weaken or overturn the 1973 landmark decision that established the right to an abortion.

Advocates hope the court decision in Colombia builds momentum for abortion rights in other countries in the region.

She’s 51, a mother and a devout Catholic. She plans to die by euthanasia on Sunday.

In Chile, lawmakers rejected a bill in late November that would have expanded the legal right to abortion, a bill that was opposed by the country’s conservative president. But Chilean advocates are hopeful their new leftist president-elect, Gabriel Boric, may help usher in change.

In Ecuador, the country’s constitutional court decriminalized abortion last year in all cases of pregnancy resulting from rape. Previously, abortions were only allowed if a patient’s life was in danger or if someone with an intellectual disability was raped.

Last week, Ecuador’s National Assembly approved regulations allowing access to abortions in cases of rape, but only up to 12 weeks of pregnancy for adults in urban areas and up to 16 weeks for minors and adults in rural areas. The measures must now be signed by Ecuadoran President Guillermo Lasso, a devout Catholic who opposes abortion rights but said he respected the court’s decision last year.

Abortion rights advocates in Ecuador criticized the national assembly’s time restrictions and said they would continue to work toward expanding access in the country. One advocate, Ana Cristina Vera, said the decision in Colombia is particularly important given the constitutional court’s reputation in the region.

“Throughout the region, it will strengthen a trend away from using criminal law to restrict women from the right to abortion,” she said.

Mexico decriminalizes abortion, a dramatic step in world’s second-biggest Catholic country

Colombian conservatives have accused the constitutional court of taking an activist role on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia. The court had a chance to lift the country’s abortion restrictions in March 2020, but the effort fell one vote short of a majority.

Alejandro Ordóñez, Colombia’s ambassador to the Organization of American States, on Monday criticized the court’s decision via Twitter, saying a state “that decides to eliminate a portion of human beings, from the first day or until the 24th week, becomes genocidal and totalitarian.”

'It hurts to see how society is subjugated by the culture of death,” he added. “This is an act of violence with appearances of legality.”

In the hours after Monday’s decision, the constitutional court became the scene of a dance party for hundreds of abortion rights supporters. Many of them were young women who sang along to feminist chants as green smoke and balloons filled the air. One group of four college students said they had been coming here since high school, each time the court weighed the issue. They were all raised in devout Catholic families and attended the same Catholic high school; their mothers all oppose expanding abortion rights.

But their generation has been on the front lines of the battle for abortion rights across Latin America. Gabriela Lora, 20, said her activism as a teenager inspired her to pursue a law degree.

“There will now be a before and after for the women of Colombia,” she said. “The state is giving us back our autonomy over our own bodies.”

A few steps away, Alibe Linares Salinas, 47, said she had been waiting and demonstrating for this moment for 20 years.

“We gave it our all, so many of us, so many that are no longer with us,” Linares said. “We raised our voices because it’s not fair. It’s not fair that women keep dying in secrecy when we have a way to save ourselves.”

Some abortion rights activists had hoped the court would rule in favor of total decriminalization of the procedure. Barriers to abortion access would continue to persist in Colombia for the most vulnerable, some said, even for those who meet the legal requirements.

Such was the case for a young woman who sought out an abortion three years ago and spoke in an interview about her ordeal on the condition of anonymity to protect her privacy. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 12, she said she was a victim of sexual abuse at a young age and struggled with homelessness for part of her life. She argued to her health provider that her pregnancy posed a danger to her mental health and would make her eligible for an abortion. “Every time the baby kicked, all I felt was fear and despair,” the woman said.

While a doctor initially approved her request for an abortion, the woman was later forcibly admitted to a hospital by psychiatrists who said she suffered from “abortion idealization,” according to a lawsuit she filed in 2020. She eventually gave birth “against my will” to a boy, a child she loves but is unable to care for. The toddler is in the custody of his father.

“These rights only exist for women with money. If I had money … my life would be a different story,” the woman said. “It’s not an easy decision for anyone. It’s one you make thinking less about your own conditions and more about what life will be like for the other, for the one inside of you.”