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Latin America Report

Abortion-rights advocates hope a video campaign can help tip Colombia's court

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Fernando Vergara
/
AP
Colombian women march in support of abortion legalization in Bogota.

Colombia's Constitutional Court is expected to rule in the coming weeks on whether to legalize abortion. Can social media sway justices, as well as public opinion?

In the coming weeks, Colombia’s highest constitutional court, La Corte Constitucional, is expected to rule — for the second time in less than two years — on whether to legalize abortion in that country.

Abortion is permitted in Colombia only in cases of rape or incest, severe fetal malformation or if there's a threat to the pregnant person's life. Abortion-rights advocates say they’re confident the court this time will decide to allow any abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.

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But one factor that could make a difference in the justice's decision is public opinion: Polls show most Colombians still oppose more generally legalized abortion. Which is why advocates recently launched an unusual social media campaign — "Hijas de la Frontera," or Daughters on the Border — which uses star power.

"I'm Katherine Porto," starts one video of the series, "and today I'm lending my voice to someone sexual violence forced to be silent."

Porto is a popular Colombian TV and film actor (known to many U.S. viewers from the Netflix series "The Good Bandit") and she's one of the celebrities telling the true stories of women and girls who were denied abortions even though they qualified for them under Colombian law.

Their argument is that as long as abortion remains illegal in most cases there, doctors remain reluctant to provide it even when it is legal.

READ MORE: Colombia's Upcoming Abortion Ruling Could Have a Big Impact on Latin America

“It broke my heart when I learned that 'Eva' was forced to give birth in inhuman conditions," Porto told WLRN from a telenovela set in rural Colombia, referring to 14-year-old "Eva," whose struggle she narrates.

"Eva" (whose case, like the others in the "Hijas" series, is documented in court) was raped last year in Cúcuta, Colombia, and became pregnant. But healthcare providers allegedly refused her a legal abortion because they didn’t believe her story. Her baby was stillborn.

“The system, the people who were supposed to protect her, they were against her at every turn," Porto said.

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Colombian actor Katherine Porto narrating the story of "Eva."

"I felt Eva's pain, her fear and her innocence, because when I was 17 years old I too got pregnant and I didn’t know what to do,” she said.

Porto says she had to resort to an unsafe, illegal abortion, "that made me feel like I was dying."

The memory, she says, "Me da rabia. It makes me angry."

The creators of the two-minute "Hijas" videos — who say the "border" in the title also connotes being on the edge of reproductive health services — are betting that more Colombians feel a similar anger.

That’s because while polls may indicate most Colombians oppose fully legalizing abortion, another recent survey shows, paradoxically, that a majority also oppose or question criminally punishing women — especially putting them behind bars — for having illegal abortions.

These stories should open the eyes of both citizens and justices to how vulnerable most women are in Colombia when their reproductive rights are denied.
Mariana Ardila

Daniela Martins of the Miami office of the Women’s Equality Center — which co-produced the Hijas de la Frontera videos with other international advocacy groups including Women's Link and Causa Justa — says the campaign hopes to build on that sign of momentum.

“We know that public opinion has shifted, we can feel it on the streets," Martins said. "It’s something that we started feeling before Argentina passed legislation.”

Since last year, Argentina's Congress and Mexico's Supreme Court have legalized first-trimester abortions. In both countries, a swing in public opinion occurred beforehand. Martins says the Hijas de la Frontera videos aim to sway Colombia's court justices, too — especially after thousands of women across Latin America, including Colombia, joined "green-wave" marches in support of abortion rights last month.

“We knew that we're speaking to the court — especially to three members of the [nine-member] court who are undecided on this issue," she said.

EVOLVING ATTITUDES, EVOLVING LAW

Legal experts say that influence is not uncommon.

“It’s a legal fiction that judges were ever blind to public opinion, especially in this day and age,” said Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, a University of Miami law professor who directs the law school's Human Rights Clinic and follows Latin American abortion law.

She points to how changing attitudes about homosexuality in the U.S. helped lead to the Supreme Court's legalization of gay marriage in 2015.

“Evolution of the law has to run hand-in-hand with evolution of public opinion," said Bettinger-Lopez.

"That's something the Colombian Constitutional Court readily accepts — it's known for incorporating international human rights law in the domestic legal framework, for example.”

But the other side believes it can sway the court with social media too.

In recent years, constitutional law professor Natalia Bernal Cano, one of Colombia’s most outspoken abortion-rights opponents, has produced her own videos. One released in July cites studies like a 2015 report in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology that indicates a risk of premature birth for women who've had surgical instead of medical abortions in the past.

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Colombian law professor and abortion-rights opponent Natalia Bernal Cano in one of her videos.

“The court should not ignore or discredit this authentic research into the physical and psychological hazards women face from abortion," said Bernal Cano — who this year filed a complaint in Congress against three of the justices after they asked Colombia's judicial discipline board to investigate her for disrespectful behavior toward the court.

Colombia’s abortion-rights advocates insist their videos show the health risks are worse for women forced to have unsafe, illicit abortions. That's an especially salient concern, they add, since less than 1% of the estimated 400,000 abortions performed in Colombia each year are legal, according to the U.S.-based Guttmacher Institute.

"These stories should open the eyes of both citizens and justices to how vulnerable most women are here when their reproductive rights are denied," said Mariana Ardila, an attorney with the Women’s Link and Causa Justa nonprofits in Bogotá who handled some of the cases recounted in Hijas de la Frontera.

Latin America and the Caribbean have has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws — in fact, no other region has as many countries (six) that ban abortion outright, under any circumstances.

But if Colombia, which has Latin America's third largest population, legalizes abortion along with Argentina (the fourth-largest) and Mexico (the second-largest), it will mark a tectonic shift in the eyes of the world.