Colombia’s Constitutional Court Defends Abortion Rights

After more than 10 hours of debate, on October 17 Colombia’s Constitutional Court reaffirmed women’s right to abortion. With the 6-3 decision, the court fought off an attempt to place further restrictions on women’s reproductive autonomy and left untouched the court’s 2006 ruling, which decriminalized abortion in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal impairment, or when the health of the woman is in danger.

The proceedings were sparked by Judge Cristina Pardo, who sought to establish a 24 week limit for accessing legal abortion services. The International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) was one of more than 20 organizations that contributed an amicus brief to the court urging them to defend abortion rights. IWHC’s amicus drew on the organization’s global expertise and provided evidence that further restrictions would increase the number of clandestine and unsafe abortions, and present grave consequences for women’s health and lives. In Colombia, a country of 48 million, it is estimated that 400,000 clandestine abortions occur annually, compared to the approximately 10,000 legal abortions in 2017.

Time limits, such as those proposed, are particularly problematic in Colombia, where structural barriers often force women to endure long waiting periods prior to receiving an abortion. Twelve years after the decriminalization of abortion in limited circumstances, many women still struggle to access legal abortion care due to a lack of medical centers—especially in rural areas—confusion about the legal grounds under which abortion is allowed, and a dearth of trained providers. So-called “conscientious objection,” the refusal to provide abortion care based on personal or religious beliefs, serves as an additional barrier to accessing legal abortion services and further delays the procedure as women have to identify a doctor who will fulfill their obligations.

Judge Pardo’s attempt to enact additional legal barriers would have served to further obstruct women’s limited access and force women to decide between keeping an unwanted or unviable pregnancy or resorting to a clandestine, and often unsafe, procedure. In its decision, the court acknowledged the many obstacles that cause significant delay in obtaining an abortion, and noted that these obstructions are a breach of international commitments such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which guarantees women the autonomy to voluntarily interrupt their pregnancy where legal. Additionally, the court encouraged Congress to take action to further define the circumstances and timeframe for legal abortion in the country, an action, women’s rights advocates fear, that could erode reproductive rights.

Despite its limitations, Colombia’s abortion law is among the more liberal in Latin America, which is home to the world’s most restrictive abortion laws. The court’s decision to defend women’s rights could have a ripple effect throughout the region as other countries, such as Argentina and Brazil, consider changes to their abortion legislation in the face of powerful and regressive conservative forces.

The court’s decision was a crucial victory for women’s rights in Colombia, and keeps the country in line with the global trend of liberalizing abortion laws.

Photo: Yesid Sandoval

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