Written by: Elena Cata
After decades of relentless campaigning, abortion activists in Colombia reveled in their victory in the streets of Bogota on February 21. The historic ruling from the Colombian Constitutional Court legalized abortion up until 24 weeks of a pregnancy and removed the procedure from the country’s criminal code. Following in the recent steps of Mexico and Argentina, this ruling certainly indicates a shift in the region as it pertains to abortion rights.
Prior to the Constitutional Court ruling, women in Colombia who ended pregancies faced potential prosecution unless their situation could be attributed to three extenuating circumstances: if their health or life was in danger, if the pregancy was a result of incest or rape, or if the fetus was malformed and therefore nonviable. Ending a pregnancy outside of these circumstances could put a Colombian woman behind bars for up to 54 months.
A Colombian women’s rights coalition, Causa Justa, estimates that at least 350 women were sanctioned or convicted for abortions between 2006-2019. Disturbingly, they estimate that at least 20 of these women were under the age of 18. Although those numbers do not indicate that criminal convictions for abortion were common, the lives of 350 women were forever changed.
However, in order to examine the impact of restrictive abortion laws, we must acknowledge the tens of thousands women who terminated their pregnancies illegally and often unsafely. In 2020, at least 26,223 unsafe abortions were peformed in Colombia according to a local reproductive healthcare provider. Furthermore, the threat of punishment for termination can force a woman to carry her pregnancy to term despite being unable to care for a child at that stage in her life. According to abortion rights activists, the criminalization of abortion can generate an atmosphere of fear and mistrust between medical professionals and patients. Prior to the recent decision, medical professionals in Colombia faced repercussions for aiding in the procedure or even failing to report an abortion. Both women and the doctors who performed their abortions could face prison sentences ranging from 16 to 54 months.
The Catholic Church, an organization historically opposed to abortion, continues to wield massive influence in Latin America. In recent years, the region has been marked by considerable progress when it comes to reproductive rights. In September of 2020, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled the criminalization of abortion illegal and unconstituional. Only a year prior, Argentina became the largest nation in Latin America to legalize abortion up to 14 weeks. Cuba, Guyana, Uruguay, and French Guinea are additional nations that permit elective abortions and have become destinations for women seeking reproductive health services that are criminalized in their native countries.As Colombian citizens are celebrating the implementation of reproductive autonomy as a human right, an attack against Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that protects a woman’s right to an abortion, is underway in the United States. Recent legislation passed in the South and Southwest regions of the country have outlawed abortion entirely, or at 6, 12, or 15 weeks of gestation. Given the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court the constiutional right to an abortion is in serious jeopardy. The United States has been a leader in the advancement of elective abortions for close to five decades. However, recent restrictive legislation has the potential to strip the U.S of that title. As Latin American nations continue to follow in the footsteps of their neighbors, the United States must be wary of changing norms in the Americas and recognize that criminalizing abortion is a step backward in the preservation for fundamental human rights.