Bogota, Colombia – “Ya es ley.” Now it’s law.
That was the chant that echoed outside Colombia’s Constitutional Court building Monday in a sea of green handkerchiefs.
In a landmark decision, the court decriminalised abortion procedures up to 24 weeks of gestation, paving the way for greater abortion access in the largely Catholic country.
For 15 years, Colombian law allowed for abortions only under three circumstances: if the mother’s life was endangered, if the pregnancy was a product of rape or if the fetus was fatally deformed. After 24 weeks, those same three exceptions apply.
“There’s not a single woman in Colombia who doesn’t know someone who has had to get a clandestine abortion,” said 29-year-old Marisol Rivera, who stood outside the court building Monday with a green handkerchief symbolising the pro-abortion rights movement.
“But little-by-little, we’re changing that.”
The case came as a feminist “green wave,” referring to the bright green bandanas pro-choice advocates sport, sweeps across Latin America.
While it is built off of decades of work by feminist activists across the region, the recent wave first gained speed in Argentina, which in December 2020, passed a law to legalise abortion and Mexico, which decriminalised the procedure in September.
Other countries such as Ecuador also recently loosened laws to decriminalise abortion in situations of rape.
Advocates said it represented a major step forward for women’s rights across the region, especially as other Latin American countries consider similar cases.
“It’s an awakening of women’s rights,” said Paula Avila-Guillen, executive director of Women’s Equality Center. “We’ve arrived at a moment in which we were tired of being left behind … and just started reclaiming our rights. For many years we were just waiting.”
Conservative ex-President Alvaro Uribe and other anti-abortion groups decried the decision with Uribe saying on Twitter “this ruling deeply offends the highest group of (Colombian) citizens.”
Jose Jaime Uscátegui, a conservative congressman, tweeted a video standing outside the court Monday throwing toilet paper rolls at the court building.
“This is a crime. Why do Colombian citizens have to sit here silent … while five judges make a decision on behalf of 50 million Colombians,” he said in the video.
Colombia’s case was based on a lawsuit filed by an umbrella group of 100 organisations, called Causa Justa Por el Aborto (“Just Cause for Abortion”), which sought to eliminate abortion from Colombia’s criminal code, and have abortion regulated under health laws instead.
Previously, women could face anywhere from 16 to 54 months in prison for interrupting a pregnancy that did not fall under the three exceptions.
For decades, the procedure was completely banned in the South American country.
Beatriz Quintero, the co-founder of La Mesa por la Vida y la Salud de las Mujeres (“Table for the Life and Health of Women”), one of the organisations signed on to the case, got a clandestine abortion she was 18 years old in the 1970s when the procedure was criminalised.
Quintero, now 69, said she was lucky to have sanitary conditions during her procedure, but was scared knowing that she could face criminal charges and that she had no safety guarantees.
“Many women don’t have the same conditions [in their abortions], and they suffer for it,” she said. “There are women who scrape together resources, who hide it from their families, who don’t have any support.”
Annually, 760,000 women in Latin America are treated for complications from clandestine abortions, data from the Guttmacher Institute shows. Such abortions account for one in 10 maternal deaths in the region.
In 2006, Colombia’s Constitutional Court overturned that ban and partially decriminalised abortions under the three conditions as above. On paper, Colombia’s laws appeared more liberal than neighbouring countries.
But women – especially in poorer and rural areas – face a labyrinth of legal and physical obstacles, and stigmatisation that make access to the procedure virtually impossible.
While women in more left-leaning urban centres like Bogota have easier access to the procedure, in more conservative rural areas, women often do not know their rights and restrictions are often interpreted far more rigidly.
Some worry that access and enforcement of the regulations will continue to be split down that divide.
Most abortions carried out in Colombia are done clandestinely, according to Causa Justa, making them unsafe.
Criminal cases of abortion have only gone up since the law was changed in 2006, according to a recent report by La Mesa por la Vida y la Salud. Criminal cases of abortion jumped 320 percent from 130 in 2005, when there was still an all-out ban, to 416 in 2018.
Minors and women from rural areas were disproportionately criminalised, the report said, and at least 42 percent of those prosecuted were victims of gender-based violence.
The court decision on Monday marked a symbolic step forward for the region, and could ripple to countries like Chile, where abortion is highly restricted and whose president-elect, Gabriel Boris, has promised to make the procedure freely available.
Yet the issue has still been divisive in Colombia and much of the region.
About 60 percent of Colombians support the legalisation of the procedure, but only a fourth believe abortion should be completely legalised without limits like the ones currently in place, according to a September IPSOS poll.
In 2020, when the court was last considering another abortion case that maintained previous law, the country’s right-wing President Ivan Duque said expanding abortion access would be a “very hard change”.
“I’m pro-life. I believe life starts at conception,” he said.
Despite Argentina’s legalisation, many doctors in the country have continued to refuse to perform the procedure on moral grounds, spurring on concerns by observers that the same could happen in Colombia or Mexico.
“There is always going to be a doctor that is going to exercise conscientious objection,” said Paula Avila-Guillen of the Women’s Equality Center.
Still, for Quintero, who had a clandestine abortion decades ago, the decision marks a sign of change not just in her country, but across the region.
“These decisions show that the world is moving forward,” Quintero said.