Written by María Mercedes Vivas, Executive Director of the Orientame Foundation in Colombia
On the 21st of February, after more than 500 days of deliberation the Constitutional Court in Colombia ruled to decriminalize, under any circumstance, abortion up to 24 weeks of gestation. This enormous victory is the result of a lawsuit presented by Causa Justa, a coalition of more than 100 organizations and people to remove the crime of abortion from the penal code. The case contained more than 90 arguments that showed that the existing restrictions to abortion services not only impeded access to services for women and people able to gestate but also led to unsafe abortions. Those arguments were valuable for the Constitutional Court and were also essential to change public debate. Causa Justa guided the discussion, took it to the streets, and included many people who hadn’t been part of the conversation but were suffering the consequences of such an unequal system. Causa Justa also clearly showed that 40% of women who were criminalized for seeking abortions are victims of sexual violence. The constitutional Court finally accepted that criminalizing abortion affects the right to health, violates the freedom of conscience of women, girls, and persons with gestational capacity, disproportionately affects marginalized communities, and improperly uses the penal code.
In Colombia, from 2006 to the 20th of February 2022, people could legally have an abortion in only three situations: to preserve their life or health, in case of foetal malformation incompatible with life, and if the pregnancy was due to rape. The right to choose was not a situation that granted legal access to abortion. Oriéntame is a sexual and reproductive health clinic in Colombia and one of the organizations that belong to the Causa Justa coalition. For the past 16 years, Oriéntame Clinics implemented those regulations comprehensively to include as many people as possible. If the concept of health is understood as a general and fundamental condition to have a fulfilling life, there is no reason to deny any abortion request. However, Oriéntame was one of the few places to use the broad interpretation of the ‘preserving health’ situation. Many people seeking services found barriers mainly because abortion was still a crime. The main requirement to legally access an abortion was that a medical doctor had to certify why terminating a pregnancy was not a crime, thus turning medical doctors into gate keepers. Unfortunately, many doctors did not question this position and thought it helpful to prevent women from accessing safe abortion services. When abortion is considered a crime it not only impacts women, but it also affects service providers. Oriéntame has been systematically singled out for its services, and there has been little support from the authorities. Women who attended the clinic and workers have faced name-calling, harassment, and stigmatization. From the crime of abortion stem many deviations from what is right.
With an upcoming election, political figures have been discussing access to safe abortion to attract votes, but there has been a lot of misinformation shared that creates confusion. For instance, the President said this ruling was going to entice women to use abortion as a contraceptive method. In the meantime, Causa Justa continues to work to protect what we achieved in February and make safe abortion accessible to anyone. At Oriéntame, we quickly adapted our systems and documents which allowed us to provide services using the new directives the day right after the Court’s ruling. We offered the same service we have always offered, but the woman’s request for an abortion was enough – no more probing was needed as barriers were removed.
The impact of this ruling goes beyond sexual and reproductive health and rights. It reaches other cases and circumstances where the penal code is inappropriate and abusive. It is also a significant contribution to the women’s movement and gender equality. Colombia has learned from Argentina and Mexico, and I’m sure other countries will learn from our experience as well. The green wave in Latin America and the women’s movement work this way – we learn from and teach each other to help advance sexual and reproductive rights, human rights, and democracy.
Please note that blog posts are not peer-reviewed and do not necessarily reflect the views of SRHM as an organisation.