Colombia: Top Court Decriminzalizes Abortion in Cases of Incest, Rape, Danger to Mother's Life

NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs, May 26, 2006 | Go to article overview

Colombia: Top Court Decriminzalizes Abortion in Cases of Incest, Rape, Danger to Mother's Life


Colombia's Corte Constitucional (CC) partially decriminalized abortion on May 10, allowing women to seek the procedure in special cases like incest, rape, and when completing a pregnancy would endanger the mother's life or if the fetus was too malformed to survive outside the womb. The decision eased Colombia's absolute criminalization of the procedure, one of the most restrictive in Latin America, and incensed conservative social sectors including the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

Decision calls total ban "irrational"

The long-awaited decision by the CC, which voted 5-3 in favor of the changes, cannot be overturned by the Corte Suprema de Justicia (CSJ). Under the decision, abortions will be permitted in the cases of rape, incest and if the life of the mother or fetus is in danger. Abortion under all other circumstances will remain illegal, punishable by sentences ranging from 16 to 54 months in jail for the woman and the doctor performing the procedure.

"The court fulfilled its duty in recognizing the right of Colombian women," lawyer Monica Roa, who spearheaded the lengthy legal battle to overturn the abortion ban, told Caracol radio.

"I'm very happy," Roa, who presented the petition to the court last year, told The Miami Herald in a telephone interview. "Hopefully, mortality rates of women seeking abortion will drop immediately because of this decision."

Roa brought the suit on the grounds that, by banning abortion, Colombia was violating its own commitments to international human rights treaties ensuring a woman's right to life and health. Roa's suit was backed financially by Women's Link Worldwide, a Madrid-based group for which she works.

Prior to the ruling, Colombia, El Salvador, and Chile were the only countries in Latin America where performing an abortion was illegal under any circumstance. The issue has become a hot topic of debate in the campaign ahead of the May 28 presidential elections, and some conservative politicians made their opposition to gay rights and reproductive rights a centerpiece in recent congressional elections (see NotiSur, 2006-03-31).

Conservative President Alvaro Uribe has voiced concern that women could take advantage of easing the ban to end unwanted pregnancies of any type. His main challengers in the race supported partial legalization.

In anticipation of the court's decision, anti-abortion groups took out ads in newspapers on May 10 calling abortion "a moral problem and not an issue of public health."

Federal officials estimate that as many 450,000 illegal abortions are performed each year in Colombia, the majority in unsanitary, clandestine clinics. Police figures show that 125 women were prosecuted in Colombia for getting abortions between 2003 and 2005.

The court, explaining its decision on May 11, said the life of a fetus could not be put ahead of the life of a mother and called the complete abortion ban "disproportionate" and "irrational."

But opponents in this heavily Roman Catholic region saw the decision as akin to legalizing murder. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, Colombia's highest Catholic Church official, told RCN radio that the decision was "an attack on human life." He said, "The depenalization of abortion is a judicial stupidity. The Corte Constitucional does not have the right to say there is or there is not a crime. This is a bad decision, the fruit of international pressures that disrespect many Colombians."

Advocates for the continued criminalization of abortion like Ilva Hoyos of the Red Futuro Colombia called the decision a victory for "foreign feminist movements and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)." She added, "We are not going to just cross our arms. Despite fatigue and sadness, we will keep fighting, not only to avoid a future decision [further decriminalizing abortion], but also to reverse the current decision. …

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