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Abortion victory in Colombia

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

22 February 2022

Women celebrate Colombia's constitutional court decision to decriminalise abortion until 24 weeks of gestation

Colombia’s constitutional court voted to lift the criminal sanctions on abortions up to a period of 24 weeks.  The vote has been seen as an important victory by women’s organisations.

Abortion was already legal in Colombia in three circumstances, or more precisely, just like the south of Ireland the exceptions to the ban on abortions were regulated: rape, unviability of the fetus, threat to the mother’s physical or psychological health.  This situation was seen as an advance on the previous outright prohibition of abortion in all cases, in a country where the Catholic Church, like Ireland held sway with a special position in the pre 1991 constitution and even today, Bishops and priests hold military rank in the armed forces and in 2006 even publicly threatened the judges with excommunication if they voted in favour of abortion.

However, unlike Ireland, feminists never called for a repeal of legislation but rather the legal right to abortion as a demand, without quibbles.  Years of campaigning bore fruit in the recent decision taken by the constitutional court, though some feminists want to court to go even further than it has.  The point however, is that they were not content to leave it to Congress, they campaigned for precise rights and not a general repeal of legislation.

In the current election campaign, the main “left” candidate Gustavo Petro has tried to sidestep the issue, claiming that he was in favour of zero abortions i.e. a situation where no woman finds herself in those circumstances, refusing to be drawn on what would happen whilst he worked towards this and what would happen in those circumstances where for medical reasons there was no other option.  Francia Márquez, his possible running mate in the elections, called him to task over his prevarication on the issue, which according to her could be counted in the deaths of poor women in the country.

In practice some doctors have played fast and loose with the rules and provided abortions in circumstances that didn’t really meet the three clauses where it may be permitted.  Between 2006 and 2019, 5,700 women were taken to court for having illegally practiced an abortion, and in many cases it was medical personnel who filed the charges.  Medical practitioners were also struck off for assisting in these abortions.  The Irish solution to an Irish problem didn’t work out that well in Colombia for those women as may well prove to be the case in the south.

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