Having waited more than 520 days for the decision of Colombia’s constitutional court, on 21 February we finally received the news we were hoping for. The court ruled that abortion, if performed within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, is no longer a criminal offence.
The court’s ruling was in response to a case brought by Causa Justa (‘righteous cause’), an umbrella movement for more than 100 groups and thousands of activists across Colombia – including Women’s Link Worldwide, where I work as a lawyer. To get this far required so much creativity, courage and collaborative effort, and none of it would have been possible without the wide mix of people in the movement.
Before 2006, there was an absolute ban on abortion in Colombia. That year, again following a lawsuit from Women’s Link, abortion was decriminalised – but only in three circumstances: if the woman’s life or health was at risk, if there were fatal foetal abnormalities, or if the pregnancy was the result of rape. But this did not reduce the number of prosecutions for abortion; in fact, official figures show that the vast majority of the criminal abortion cases from 1998 to 2019 (5,737 in total) occurred after 2006.
In September 2020, we proposed a new model for regulating abortion to the constitutional court. We did it through rigorous and evidence-based arguments, showing that the fact that abortion remained a crime in the penal code was the main barrier for women who needed access to terminations – even under the three permitted circumstances.
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Our lawsuit was supported by more than 100 national and international experts, who presented their opinions before the court. We chose the law as a tool for legal and social change. But, at the same time, we committed ourselves to changing the conversation about the importance and relevance of decriminalising abortion.
The continuing criminal status of abortion forces women to rely on unsafe procedures, with the greatest impact on the most vulnerable
It was not about a fight between those who are for or against abortion. It was about showing how the continuing criminal status of abortion does not reduce the number of abortions. Instead, it forces women to rely on unsafe procedures, and has the greatest impact on the most vulnerable: poor people, migrants, those living in remote areas or in areas controlled by illegal armed groups.
We did hundreds of interviews, organised dozens of public events and raised awareness. We talked to opinion leaders, journalists and politicians, and took over the streets and social media with our message and our green scarves (the symbol of the movement for legal abortion in Latin America).
Huge leap forward
Even though the constitutional court fell short of decriminalising abortion entirely (as we had requested), its final decision was to decriminalise terminations within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy and, beyond this time limit, to continue with the three permitted exceptions.
This is a huge leap forward, because it establishes a reasonable time frame in which all the girls, women and pregnant people who need an abortion can access a healthcare facility – without fear of being criminalised. No longer will they have to put their health and lives at risk resorting to unsafe procedures.
Many are questioning whether the court went too far in adopting the 24-week time limit. The answer is absolutely not.
We know that when abortion is legal, the vast majority of terminations take place during the first three months of pregnancy. The few that are performed at later stages correspond to women in vulnerable situations: those living in rural areas or in places without healthcare centres, survivors of family abuse, the poorest, the unemployed, those deprived of accurate information.
Through this ruling, we will ensure that the vulnerable reach health services earlier, and that all women, without exception, have access to information and contraceptive methods and are able to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
A model for Latin America
This decision will also benefit migrant women. The court acknowledged, as we argued in our case, that criminalisation “affects differently – and disproportionately – vulnerable women, including those under irregular migratory status”. Many women from neighbouring Venezuela are fleeing their country, including with unmet sexual and reproductive healthcare needs, so this ruling becomes a model not just for Colombia but for the entire region.
We expect Colombia will again be a reference point in Latin America and the Caribbean, as it was in 2006 when the constitutional court allowed three exceptions for abortion.
We also hope that this decision will contribute to the progress made in ending the use of criminal law to regulate abortion in the region – as has happened in Argentina and, more recently, in Mexico. We are convinced that the ‘green wave’ is unstoppable.
We in Women’s Link and Causa Justa will work for this decision to be fully enforced. We will also demand an integrated public policy that enables women, girls and pregnant people to have choices and to enjoy their sexual and reproductive rights, including sex education, access to contraception and proper guarantees of a healthy pregnancy for those who want to be mothers.
Women are the ones who know what is best for them. The state must respect their decisions.