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I went inside a Colombian ‘youth camp’ run by anti-abortion activists

At a camp mixing extreme sports and extreme rhetoric, I saw how they’re training teenagers to join their fight against reproductive rights. Español

Camille Mijola
22 January 2019

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Choose Life Colombia camp, September 2018. Photo: Camille Mijola.

Choose Life Colombia is a religious anti-abortion movement closely linked to the international 40 Days for Life network.

Since 2017, they’ve run youth camps that mix extreme sports with extreme anti-choice rhetoric, training teenagers on how to campaign against women’s reproductive rights.

They represent the new face of an emboldened anti-choice movement in Colombia – and the backlash to the government’s 2006 decision to relax its restrictions on abortion. They are also part of the ola celeste, the “sky-blue wave” of anti-abortion activism that has grown across Latin America after kicking off in Argentina in August.

I attended one of their two-day camps in September, along with about 30 other young people, between 15 and 22 years old, in a mountainous region called La Mesa, two hours outside of Bogotá. First, we met the organisers – all dressed in matching blue sweaters – at a church at 6.30am, to join an early Sunday mass before setting off.

Surrounded by evergreen hills, the camp was in an extreme sports park that looked like the perfect setting for school trips or adventure days -- with obstacle courses, climbing and rappelling sites. Though our schedule included hour-long talks on abortion, referred to in one of these as a symptom of the globalised “culture of death”.

The camp’s director was Melisa Castro, a cultural studies student in her twenties at the prestigious University of Los Andes. Her opening presentation, “Defending Life”, condemned “abortion culture” and accused Profamilia and Oriéntame, the two best-known Colombian reproductive rights NGOs of “profiting from death”.

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Choose Life Colombia camp, September 2018. Photo: Camille Mijola.

Amid a power shortage brought by a raging thunderstorm, we were asked to lie down on the floor, close our eyes and listen to an emotionally-distressing recording of a voice, which had a Mexican accent, and was supposedly that of a fetus narrating its abortion.

“Mommy”, it said, “I love you very much. I don’t understand why you are so sad and fighting with Daddy so much”. Over ten minutes, it continued. “Mommy, why are you lying down? It’s only 2pm”, before screaming: “Mommy, what are they doing to my house? They’re taking away my arms! Tell them to stop, Mommy!”

The screams ended abruptly, the abortion apparently completed. After a long silence, the unsettling voice resumed -- ending the recording with haunting words: “Mommy, it has been 17 years... but I still love you, and I’m waiting for the day we meet”.

We were then handed out pieces of paper to practice writing letters to women as if we were part of a campaign involving 40 Days for Life vigils outside Oriéntame clinics.

“What are they doing to my house? They’re taking away my arms! Tell them to stop Mommy!”

Prior to 2006, abortion was illegal in Colombia without exceptions. Since then it is legal if a pregnancy poses risks to the woman’s life or health, including her mental well-being; if there are serious foetal malformations; or in cases of rape or incest. In Bogotá, there were 16,947 legal abortions between 2006 and 2013, according official figures.

This is one of the more progressive abortion regimes in Latin America, where women’s reproductive rights are severely restricted. But it’s been opposed for years by religious and ultra-conservative movements. Within this opposition, Choose Life’s niche is its focus on young people, along with its international connections.

Daniel García, a cheerful engineering graduate in his mid-twenties, was my point of contact for the Choose Life camp. He told me he’d been involved in the movement for more than four years, since he committed himself to following “the path of God”.

I was charged 230,000 Colombian pesos (£57) to attend – about a third of the monthly minimum wage. When I asked for a receipt, García couldn’t provide one. “We’re not registered as a legal entity, we’re quite informal at this point”, he told me, though our trip would be the fourth it had run since starting these youth camps in 2017.

Instead, he got a contact of his at a print shop to emit a receipt for a different purchase, leaving me with no legal proof of having paid to attend this camp. This receipt, which made it appear that I’d purchased print services instead, cost an extra 40,000 pesos.

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40 Days for Life protest in London. Photo: Ian Nicholson/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Garcia described a close relationship between Choose Life Colombia and the 40 Days for Life network, which calls itself “the largest internationally coordinated pro-life mobilization in history, helping local communities end the injustice of abortion”.

This network started in Texas in 2004 and became known for organising prayer vigils outside clinics. It now has affiliated groups in more than 20 countries. Garcia told me that meeting 40 Days for Life activists was “what I was waiting for”. Previously, he said, he’d run a blog about these issues but felt helpless and wasn’t active in protests.

It was a Colombian doctor, Danelia Cardona, who previously lived in the UK, who brought the 40 Days for Life movement here three years ago, according to Garcia. From Bogotá, it had spread to 26 cities, with regular vigils at clinics across the country. It’s also built alliances with other anti-abortion groups, like Choose Life Colombia.

García explained how 40 Days for Life volunteers “pray” for Choose Life Colombia’s mission – and have directed people to the group. In return, Choose Life Colombia has attended their vigils – and runs workshops for the network.

Role-playing and misinformation

Practicing how to dissuade women from having abortions was a key theme at the camp. When Castro finished her presentation she handed out the sky-blue neck-pieces worn by ola celeste activists across Latin America, and her version of the ‘We Need You’ poster. As campers began to put their neck-pieces on, we were split into groups.

For this role-playing activity, my group included three young girls, the youngest of whom was just 15-years-old. We had to act out how we’d try to convince a hypothetical, pregnant 20-year-old rape victim not to have an abortion. Other groups had their own scenarios, but the same goal: convince women not to access their reproductive rights.

Later that day, Juan Carrasquilla, another Choose Life activist, delivered a presentation in which he appeared to deliberately misuse data from the pro-choice group Oriéntame, claiming that of 241 women and girls referred to them for adoption counselling, 236 decided to terminate pregnancies, rather than carry them to term for adoption.

I later shared this example with Maria Vivas, Oriéntame’s director. “We’re used to this type of misinformation”, she told me. “They’re reading numbers incorrectly”. Just because 14 women and girls successfully completed the adoption process, she said, doesn’t mean the other 236 who considered it chose to have abortions instead.

“They’re used to these conspiracy theories”, she added, referencing another claim that also came up at the camp -- that clinics providing abortions sell fetal tissue, for example “to corporations that produce makeup and other beauty products”. She added: “They’re obsessed with the fact that fetuses are not given a ‘Christian’ burial”.

Increasingly, Colombians hear such “conspiracy theories” from anti-abortion activists – but also from key public and political figures, including the country’s extremely popular, former president Alvaro Uribe Vélez.

The same week as Choose Life’s camp in September, Vélez sent an open letter to Cristina Pardo – an openly anti-choice judge of the constitutional court – opposing the “commercialisation” of “those who have lost their lives to abortion”.

One Choose Life volunteer, Edwin Danilo Sonza, is meanwhile also the youth coordinator for Marco Fidel Ramirez, who was elected in 2016 as a councillor of Bogotá, making him part of the capital’s highest administrative authority.

After two failed campaigns, Ramirez told me this victory was his “electorate was rewarding me” for positions “against abortion, in defence of the family, against gender ideology… and against the scary secularisation which is ravaging our society’s values”.

“Against the scary secularisation which is ravaging our society’s values”

The morning I met Ramirez, I also ran into Sonza, who told me that he also had ambitions to someday join local government. He was wearing the same Choose Life wristband that I’d been given at the camp, and said that he’d just been at a protest with Choose Life activists outside the capital’s constitutional court.

In a sermon-like tone, reflecting his years as a Protestant pastor, Ramirez told me: “It is precisely because of the destruction of the family that we have all of our problems in society: resentment, bitterness, violence, destruction, disaffection, drug use, etcetera”.

He is an avid promoter of ‘conscientious objection’ – enabling doctors to object to providing abortion services. Ramirez also publicly supported the arrival in Latin America of the so-called “hate bus” from the ultra-conservative Spanish group CitizenGO, which drove around cities in Colombia in 2017 bearing anti-transgender slogans.

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CitizenGo’s bus. Image: HazteOir.org/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) Some rights reserved.

This month, Ramirez released a new book entitled “Los Que Transforman El Mundo” (Those Who Transform the World) with Panamerica, Colombia’s largest publishing company.

“My book", he said, "explains how a Christian leader can be capable of defending his faith and decodify the message of Christian faith to reach the day-to-day life of the city and the country, in the design of laws and in the structure of norms”.

“Already, all those leaders defending life and family that have risen in several countries… We’re getting close to each other, out of need”, Ramirez continued. “The big future of this international strategic alliance is very close”.

The councillor, who also ran as a presidential pre-candidate ahead of last year’s national elections, told me he’s plans to try for the senate in 2022.

Now, more than 10 years after Colombia relaxed restrictions on abortion, the country has a new religious conservative government in power. It’s not impossible that the senate will be summoned to revise the abortion law.

Meanwhile, the opposition to reproductive rights is increasingly well-connected, ambitious – and strategically recruiting teenagers to join their fight.

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