Colombia’s highest court is about to issue a ruling that could return the country to a total ban on abortion – or bring it in line with Roe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion in the U.S. Either way, because Colombia is one of the region's largest and more culturally influential countries, the decision could have a profound effect on abortion rights in Latin America.
The region already has some of the world’s strictest abortion laws – and now people on both sides of the debate hope a recent – and admittedly unusual – case will affirm their agendas.
“It has opened up the discussion,” says Marta Royo, the executive director of Profamilia, a reproductive health nonprofit in Colombia that supports abortion rights. She’s referring to the national controversy over a young woman in Popayán, Colombia, who last September decided she wanted an abortion when she was 12 weeks pregnant.
Her unwanted pregnancy had made her so distraught doctors diagnosed her as suicidal. For the past 14 years, Colombia has permitted abortion if a woman’s life is at risk. As a result, she could have the procedure legally.
But Royo points out that while the unidentified woman had been trying to get an abortion since her first trimester, local clinics and healthcare officials blocked her.
“She was denied access to the service for several weeks,” Royo says. “Why does she have to go through everything that has happened to her just to have access to her rights?”
It wasn’t until her seventh month – this month – that a judge intervened and granted an abortion, with Profamilia’s help.
“We understand how hard it is for the public to face, that a woman had an abortion when she was seven months pregnant,” Royo concedes. “But we also have to consider the barriers she faced,” obstacles she says countless Colombian women still confront even when their abortion request is legal.
On one side, people are pointing to the Popayán case as proof that Colombia has become far too lenient on abortion. “This is not a proper use of the criteria for legal abortion in Colombia,” a Popayán government spokesman, Jaime López, told the Bogotá daily El Tiempo.
The other side says it only illustrates the need for more legal access to abortion. “The only way for Colombia to move forward and avoid more situations like this,” Royo insists, “is to advance the legalization ruling.”
In that 2006 ruling, Colombia’s Constitutional Court legalized abortion in cases of rape or incest, severe fetus malformation or a threat to the mother’s life.
Now, in no small part because of cases like the Popayán woman, the court is studying petitions to expand that ruling and legalize any abortion in the first trimester. At the same time, it’s hearing petitions to reverse the 2006 ruling and criminalize all abortions again. A decision could come as early as Wednesday.
“If the court goes back to before 2006, for us it would be a huge victory," says Adolfo Castañeda, an anti-abortion activist in Miami who directs Hispanic education for Human Life International, a Roman Catholic nonprofit.
Human Life is based in Virginia, but it’s watching Colombia because it wants Latin America and the Caribbean to retain its strict abortion limits. No region in the world has as many countries – six – that ban abortion outright. (Only two small countries and one city – Cuba, Uruguay and Mexico City – have legalized all abortions in the first trimester.) The group hopes reaffirming the status quo there will influence Hispanics in the U.S. – who polls show are trending toward abortion rights. (Most younger Hispanics and those born in the U.S. do favor legalized abortion.)
“I think [returning to a total abortion ban in Colombia] would have a positive effect on Hispanics here, especially Colombians, realizing that in their own country and Latin America life is still respected from conception to natural death,” says Castañeda. “Realizing that abortion does not help the health of women.”
Dian Alarcon disagrees. She was a teenager in Cali, Colombia, when she says she had to seek a clandestine, back-alley abortion.
“I had to knock on an enormous wooden door,” she recalls. “Someone opened a peephole and I had to give a password. I couldn’t afford local anesthesia, so I fainted during the procedure.”
Today, Alarcon is an abortion rights activist in Miami with the nonprofit National Latina Institute. She takes issue with the anti-abortion petitioners who are telling Colombia’s high court right now that even legal abortions cause women the kind of trauma she experienced.
Those advocates did not respond to WLRN’s interview request. But their lead attorney, Natalia Bernal Cano, recently told the Colombian daily El Espectador that the 2006 ruling is unconstitutional – not just because she says it denies unborn children their human rights, but because studies show, she insists, that permitting any abortion “subjects a woman to excessively grave mental health risks such as post-traumatic depression.”
Abortion rights advocates argue illegal, dangerous abortions like the one Alarcon suffered are far more detrimental to women. They also point out hundreds of thousands of women whose pregnancies don’t meet the 2006 conditions still undergo illicit abortions in Colombia earch year, according to estimates – a situation likely to worsen if the court returns Colombia to a total abortion ban.
“It’s brutality,” says Alarcon, “not just the unsafe abortion, but the feeling you’re a criminal when in reality you’re a victim of conditions for women in Colombia.”
Alarcon echoes a central argument most abortion rights activists make in Colombia, if not the rest of Latin America. Because the country’s gender violence rate is so high – an estimated third of Colombian women have suffered it, a product of factors such as half a century of civil war that only recently ended – a larger than usual share of its pregnancies also result from that violence.
Even under the 2006 guidelines, “we know women that have had experiences of sexual violence being afraid of not being believed and as a result having to get [illegal] abortions on their own,” says Laura Muñoz a Colombian-American in Miami and founder of the nonprofit Poderosa, or Powerful, which advocates for victims of sexual violence here and in Colombia.
Muñoz fears outright criminalizing those abortions again will only further silence rape and incest victims: “This is just one piece of a larger puzzle of systematic violence against women across Latin America.”
But the anti-abortion forces may have more to worry about this week. Of the Constitutional Court’s nine justices, three of whom are women, four appear in favor of legalizing all abortions in the first trimester; three look opposed, and two are swing votes. Given that math, abortion rights advocates say they can at least count on the court not to reverse its 2006 ruling – especially since their 2017 poll showed two-thirds of Colombians agree with it.
“We think that will give the legalization sentiment on the court more momentum,” says Dr. Ana Cristina González, spokeswoman and co-founder of La Mesa, the Colombian reproductive health and abortion rights nonprofit that conducted the 2017 survey.
“Most of the justices on the court today seem more committed to women’s rights,” says González, “and I think they see the 2006 ruling doesn’t go far enough to protect them.”
It’s unclear what share of Colombians support and oppose legalizing all abortions. A Pew Research Center poll six years ago showed three-fourths opposed it, but little if any reliable polling has emerged since then.
Still, Colombia may be in a moment similar to the U.S. in 1973. Americans then were conflicted about legalizing abortion, but a majority of the Supreme Court made Roe v. Wade the law of the land. If that majority exists on Colombia's high court, it could dramatically alter expectations about abortion across Latin America.