Colombia Decriminalizes Abortion, Highlighting a Departure from Stigma

Andrea Gonzalez
Staff Writer

On February 21, 2022, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled 5-4 to decriminalize abortions, making the procedure legal up to 24 weeks of gestation, reports The Guardian. The historic ruling will change the lives of women and young girls who often resorted to clandestine abortions and were penalized under the healthcare system, says Al Jazeera. Many pro-choice individuals and feminists in Colombia welcomed the decision as a reaffirmation of women’s bodily autonomy, hoping the ruling will inspire other countries to push for legislation protecting women’s rights. 

In September of 2020, more than 90 groups, led by Causa Justa for Abortion, filed a lawsuit calling for the decriminalization of abortion in Colombia, says the Washington Post. Since 2006, Colombia has partially allowed abortions in cases of rape, fatal fetal deformities,  and to save the pregnant woman’s life, according to . However, much of the highly conservative and Catholic country remained opposed to abortion, with stigma preventing thousands of young girls and women from accessing safe procedures.

The Center for Reproductive Rights adds that rights activists and lawyers say the case aimed to eliminate “abortion as a crime from the penal code and end the risk of criminal prosecution and imprisonment in Colombia.” In addition, the lawsuit calls on the state to “provide abortion care nationwide to respect the autonomy and freedom of women over the decisions that impact their bodies.” The front declared the ruling a victory over stigma and neglect in the healthcare system. 

“Catholic and Christian women and doctors believe that humanity should come before dogmas,” says Dr. Mariana Ardila, a lawyer and leader of Causa Justa. She argued that abortions are a primary form of healthcare, requiring a safe environment to avoid pregnant women turning to harmful means. Furthermore, Catalina Martinez Coral, a Colombian lawyer and member of Causa Justa, told The Center for Reproductive Rights that the ruling “is a necessary advancement for women’s rights and an essential step toward the provision of abortion in safe conditions throughout Colombia.”

Nevertheless, those who oppose expanding abortion rights see the ruling as problematic. Dr. Natalia Bernal Cano, an opposing lawyer, told Al Jazeera that the decision “authorizes procedures that may hinder the lives of children.” Bernal called abortion an “inhumane practice that may have long term effects in future pregnancies and cause disabilities in future children.” However, she agrees with Colombia’s previous ruling that women should not be imprisoned for having abortions for the previously allowed conditions.

Colombia’s bishops also agree with the 2006 ruling. Explaining that difficult circumstances would call for “both civil society and the legal system to provide for her [women] defense and protection,” reports the Catholic News Agency. Nonetheless, the church claims abortion as a right “ceases to be legitimate if it involves denying or trampling on the rights of others.” 

Following the ruling, significant public backlash came against hundreds of women celebrating outside Colombia’s Constitutional Court. Colombia’s President Ivan Duque disagreed with the ruling, telling Al Jazeera, “I’m pro-life. I believe life starts at conception.” He emphasized that the ruling concerns all of Colombia, arguing that “five people cannot propose something as atrocious to a nation as allowing life to be interrupted up to six months of gestation,” in reference to the split court. 

A significant argument against the ruling, argued by both, Catholic Church and the president, is the belief that people will use abortions as contraceptives, increasing abortion rates. However, Causa Justa and other healthcare providers presented evidence that the law will not increase abortion rates but make abortions safer for women who choose to pursue them. Additionally, Causa Justa argued that increasing sex education and access to contraceptives across Colombia, which are especially scarce in rural and underserved urban communities where women and young girls are often victims of abuse and poor economic circumstances, would decrease abortion rates.

Causa Justa further argued that the decentralization of healthcare for women and young girls throughout Colombia would eliminate the economic and social inequality responsible for the stigma that keeps women from accessing abortions, even in the circumstances protected by the 2006 ruling. They expressed hope that the 2022 decision will refute misleading claims that abortions are complicated and unusual and remain controlled by specialists and doctors. 

While Colombia was inspired by Argentina’s legalization of abortion up to 14 weeks and Mexico’s ruling that penalizing abortion is unconstitutional, Colombia’s advocates hope to inspire other states, such as the U.S., The Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Honduras, to make abortion rights part of their agenda. “We are going to inspire people in the United States to defend the rights set out in Roe v. Wade,” Martinez Coral told The New York Times.

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