MEXICO CITY — In a victory for abortion rights activists, Colombia's highest court on Monday decriminalized access to the procedure, a decision that punctuates a transformative year across Latin America.
The ruling means that three of Latin America’s most populous countries — Mexico, Argentina and Colombia — have decriminalized or legalized abortion over the last 14 months. The back-to-back victories in favor of reproductive rights could push yet more countries in the region to loosen their tight restrictions, including those that just a few years ago had near total bans on abortion.
“For 20 years there has been almost no movement in Latin America when it came to advancing abortion rights. It’s very hard to express all the history that is being made right now,” said Paula Ávila-Guillén, executive director of Women’s Equality Center in New York and a lawyer in Colombia.
“The reason this movement is taking over is because countries have seen how inefficient it is to regulate abortion under criminal law in order to reduce the number of abortions,” she said. “The data proves that the abortion restrictions and bans only make a difference in how you have an abortion: legally and safely, or illegally and unsafely. It doesn’t actually persuade anybody not to have an abortion.”
In a 5-4 ruling, Colombia’s Constitutional Court said girls and women in the country of around 50 million people could legally obtain abortions during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. After that, women can obtain abortions when the fetus isn’t viable; when the mother’s life is at risk; or if the pregnancy is a result of a crime, such as rape or incest.
The judges made their decision against the backdrop of a powerful social movement that is changing the debate over abortion in the region. Tens of thousands of women waving green handkerchiefs on the streets of Latin America's capitals have become the image of a grass-roots campaign that has worked to convince legislators and judges alike to rewrite some of the world’s most draconian abortion laws. Combined with rising secularism and the Catholic Church’s waning influence, they have pushed one Latin American country after another to expand abortion access.
Over the past year, Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalized abortion, Argentina passed legislation legalizing the procedure, and Ecuador relaxed its total ban on abortion to make it available under specific circumstances.
Their success stands in stark contrast to the anti-abortion drive gathering force in the U.S., where Texas, the country’s second largest state, banned abortions after about six weeks and other states may follow.
Still, five countries in Latin America have total bans on abortions and women face prison time for ending their pregnancies. In Brazil, Latin America’s largest country, abortion is legal only to save the mother’s life or where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
The forces allied against expanded access to abortion remain powerful: Conservative politicians, prominent evangelical denominations and the Catholic Church, which exerts a strong influence across the predominantly Catholic region. “Is it justice to eliminate a human life to solve a problem?,” Pope Francis, an Argentine, said in a 2018 speech. “Is it justice to hire an assassin to solve a problem?”
Colombia has long played a prominent role in the fight over abortion rights. In what was a landmark ruling in 2006, the high court legalized abortion in emergency situations or when the pregnancy was the result of a crime.
Since then, more than a dozen abortion clinics have sprung up in large and mid-sized cities throughout the country. But whether a woman qualifies for an abortion under those exceptions is a grey area and the decision has largely depended on the individual doctor’s assessment.
Monday’s ruling stems from a case brought by abortion-rights activists who presented 90 arguments to the court as to why the abortion ban violated Colombia’s constitution. They said the criminalization of abortion creates stigma and obstacles for women seeking abortions under the three exceptions. The existing ban also violates citizens’ right to health by pushing women to seek unsafe abortions, and criminalizes doctors who wrongly identify when they can legally provide an abortion, the activist groups argued.
Monday’s court ruling expanding access to all women came in the form of a short statement. A written decision from the court expanding on its reasoning is expected in the coming days.
“We hope this decision dramatically changes the situation of women and girls in the country,” said Cristina Rosero, a lawyer and legal advisor to the Center for Reproductive Rights in Colombia, one of five groups that brought the case. “Criminalization disproportionately affects women and girls in the most vulnerable positions, especially poor and young women. It creates deeper inequalities that already exist in society.”
Juana Acosta, an abortion opponent and director of the Public Interest and Human Rights Legal Clinic at the University of La Sabana outside of Bogotá, said abortion proponents are looking to “eliminate the rights of unborn babies,” adding that the future of abortion should be decided by legislators and not the court. “There are no new arguments that merit” another ruling from the court, she said.
“Of course we should protect the lives of women and ensure that they don’t undergo unsafe procedures of any kind. But we must also prevent more abortions from happening. Just as the maternal death figures should cause us concern, the number of abortions is scandalous and should cause heartbreak,” Acosta said.
The high court’s ruling revealed a society that is deeply divided on social and economic issues. It comes amidst a period of upheaval in Colombia after mass protests last spring centered around deep-rooted inequalities and corruption. The government responded with a violent crackdown, which resulted in more than 1,870 cases of police violence and 900 alleged arbitrary police detentions, according to the United Nations. At least 26 people were killed.
The landmark period for abortion rights began in December 2020, when Argentine lawmakers legalized abortion for any women in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. President Alberto Fernández, who campaigned on his support for abortion, signed the bill the following month.
That victory galvanized activists across the region.
In April, Ecuador’s high court decriminalized abortion in cases of rape. Until then, the procedure was only allowed if the mother’s life was in danger or the rape victims suffered mental disabilities.
And in September, Mexico’s Supreme Court unanimously voted to decriminalize abortion. Previously, abortion was legal up to 12 weeks only in Mexico City and three other states. Two weeks later, the court struck down parts of a law that granted expansive rights to doctors and hospitals to refuse abortions on the grounds of conscientious objection. The decisions were a dramatic step in the predominantly Catholic country, where women are still regularly incarcerated for obtaining abortions. After the ruling a fourth state legalized abortion and activists continue to push for similar access across the country.
Activists now have their eye on Chile, which in 2017 permitted abortions in the case of rape, when the fetus is unviable, or to save the mother’s life. They are hoping to broaden access in a new constitution that is being written by an assembly where women hold half the seats.
At the other end of the spectrum, El Salvador, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Honduras have total bans on abortions. Women accused of terminating their pregnancies in those countries can be prosecuted for both abortion and homicide and face decades in prison.