Colombia decriminalizes elective abortion in milestone ruling

With the decision, Colombia has become the third country in Latin America, following Argentina and Mexico, to expand the sexual and reproductive rights of women in recent years

February 22, 2022 by Tanya Wadhwa
Thousands of women, wearing green scarves, celebrated the decriminalization of abortion in Colombia on February 21. Photo: Just Cause/Twitter

In a milestone ruling on February 21, the Constitutional Court of Colombia, with five votes in favor and four against, decriminalized abortion during the first 24 weeks of gestation. The decision was hailed by feminist movements and women’s rights organizations across the country, who had been fighting for this integral human right for decades.

Previously, Colombia permitted abortion in three conditions: when the life or health of a woman was at risk due to pregnancy, when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, and when there was a malformation of fetus that prevents life after birth. On Monday, the Constitutional Court also ruled that the time limit of 24 weeks did not apply to these three circumstances and that women and persons with capacity to gestate could access abortion in these cases without any restriction.

The resolution came as a response to a legal appeal filed by Just Cause for Abortion movement, a platform that brings together more than 100 organizations and 130 activists. The appeal questioned the section of the Colombian penal code that criminalized abortion and violated the right to dignity, equality, and freedom of thousands of Colombian women and girls, guaranteed by the country’s Constitution. However, as demanded, the law that criminalized women for seeking abortion was not completely removed from the criminal code.

In the verdict, the Court called on the Congress and the Government, “without prejudice to the immediate fulfillment of this sentence and in the shortest possible time,” to formulate and implement a comprehensive policy that avoids lack of protection and guarantees the dignity and rights of pregnant women. In this regard, the Court added that public policy must have a clear disclosure of the options available to pregnant women, the elimination of any obstacle to the exercise of their sexual and reproductive rights, the existence of pregnancy prevention or planning instruments, the development of sex education programs for all people, and measures to guarantee the rights of children born of non-desired pregnancies.

With the landmark decision, Colombia became the third country in Latin America to expand the sexual and reproductive rights of women in recent years, following Argentina in December 2020, and Mexico in September 2021. Colombia is at the forefront in the matter, since in Argentina abortion is allowed until the 14th week and in Mexico until the 12th week.

National and international celebration

As soon as the decision was announced, the thousands of people, wearing and holding green scarves, who had gathered outside the Court in the capital Bogota, burst with joy.  They shouted slogans such as “it’s legal, it’s legal, abortion is legal,” “Let’s celebrate! Let’s celebrate! That abortion in Colombia is legal!,” “It’s a law! It’s a law!, It’s a law!,” among others.

In various other cities, women and members of social and human rights organizations took to the streets to celebrate the decriminalization of abortion.

On social media networks, thousands of people retweeted the Just Cause for Abortion’s tweet “we did it,” thanking the organization for the leading the battle for bodily autonomy of women and against patriarchy.

Colombian human rights organization Temblores, also welcomed the decision. “We celebrate the historic ruling of the Constitutional Court that decriminalizes the voluntary termination of pregnancy up to the 24th week, and we deeply thank Just Cause and the feminist and transfeminist movements for their tireless work to decriminalize abortion,” it tweeted.

Roundtable for Life and Health of Women, a reproductive rights group and a part of the Just Cause for Abortion, celebrated the ruling, stating “it took more than 500 days, but it is a historic moment for the guarantee of the rights of thousands of girls, adolescents and women in Colombia. The Court eliminated the crime of abortion from the penal code until the 24th week.” In another tweet, the group highlighted that “With this historic ruling, Colombia is the first Latin American country to decriminalize abortion up to 24 weeks. We are moving forward!”

In conversation with El Espectador, Ana Cristina González, representative of Just Cause and founder of the Roundtable for Life and Health of Women, celebrated the decision. However, she regretted that the crime of abortion had not been completely eliminated. “The Court was not able to remove the conversation from the criminal sphere. The stigma associated with the idea that abortion is a crime, outside of those weeks and three grounds, is a stigma that will persist and that will probably affect the most vulnerable women. We have a lot to work on and transform that stigma,” she said. 

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, in a statement, recognized the victory of Colombian feminist movements. “We celebrate this ruling as a historic victory for the Colombian women’s movement who have fought for decades for the recognition of their rights. Women, girls and people with the capacity to gestate are the only ones who must make decisions about their bodies. Now, instead of punishing them, the Colombian authorities will have to recognize their autonomy over their bodies and their life plans,” she said.

“After the legalization of abortion in Argentina last year and the recent decriminalization in Mexico, this ruling is yet another example of the unstoppable momentum of the green tide in Latin America. We will not stop fighting until the sexual and reproductive rights of all women, girls and people with the capacity to gestate in the entire continent are recognized, without exception,” she added.

The Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network, joined Colombian women in their celebration. “From the network, we celebrate the historic conquest of the Colombian feminist comrades and organizations that have worked in an organized and strategic way for years for the decriminalization of abortion,” it tweeted.

Abortion in Colombia

According to various reproductive rights organizations, at least 400,000 clandestine abortions are performed each year in Colombia, with only 10% carried out legally.

Additionally, according to the data from Just Cause, at least 400 women or girls are punished by law annually, with the majority being girls and adolescents between 14 and 17 years in a vulnerable state and victims of rape.

The Latin American and the Caribbean region has the world’s most restrictive abortion laws. Out of the 33 countries in the region, only Cuba, Guyana, Uruguay, Argentina, and Mexico allow elective abortion. In countries such as Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, abortion is completely banned and criminalized. In recent years, feminist groups across the region have been organizing and pushing for achieving these rights and all the others.

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