BOGOTA – From the first day of her pregnancy, the Colombian woman was fainting. Then she started to vomit constantly and had two blood clots. Her health wasn’t going well, nor was her baby’s, so she chose to get an abortion.
But the woman, an engineer from Bogota, had to wait almost six months as a team of doctors and psychologists at her public health care provider debated whether a risk to her health made her eligible for the procedure. At the time, the law in Colombia called on doctors to make a decision within five days of abortion requests.
“March went by, April and then May. The doctors had several meetings and nothing happened,” said the woman, who did not want to have her name used because she still hasn’t told her family about that abortion 11 years ago. She said that at one point in her pregnancy, she was losing the ability to walk and finally paid a doctor at a private clinic to carry out the abortion and certify that she was at risk.
Colombia’s Constitutional Court this week ruled that women can get abortions until the 24th week of their pregnancy without any permits from lawyers or doctors, removing almost insurmountable hurdles for getting the procedure legally.
Previously abortions were allowed in the South American country only if women had letters from doctors proving their health was in danger, if they could show their pregnancy was a consequence of rape or if doctors certified the fetus had no chance of surviving.
From 1998 through July 2019, 346 women were punished for abortions — 85 of them minors — according to Colombian prosecutors.
The court said the existing ban violated several rights — including to health, reproductive rights and liberty of conscience. It said the decision to give birth or not is “a very personal, individual and untransferable matter.”
With Monday’s ruling, Colombia joins several other Latin American countries in facilitating access to abortion in a region where some nations still ban the procedure altogether. Last year Argentina legalized abortion until the third month of pregnancy, while Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that women cannot be prosecuted for ending their pregnancies.
Under the new ruling in Colombia, abortions carried out after the 24th week can still be punished with up to three years in prison. Women’s rights groups say their next challenge will be to get abortion removed from the nation’s penal code.
“It’s hateful to tell women that ending their pregnancies will hurt them when there are so many other things that can cause damage if they are exposed to clandestine abortions or forced motherhood,” said Laura Gil, a gynecologist who has campaigned for the legalization of abortion.
The Bogotá woman who spoke about her difficult path to getting an abortion said she had grown up in a Catholic household where abortion was anathema. But she has changed her way of thinking: “This is not a sin,” she said.
Most Colombians identify as Roman Catholic and faith influences perceptions on the issue. On Tuesday, President Iván Duque spoke out against the abortion ruling on a popular radio program, saying it will “help abortion to become something common, almost like birth control.”
The Colombia Bishops Conference issued a statement expressing “profound pain” over the ruling.
“Church doctrine is very clear, life must be respected from the moment of conception until death occurs. Therefore there is no room to allow for abortion under any circumstances,” said Bishop Francisco Ceballos, the president of Colombia’s Episcopal Commission for the Promotion and Defense of Life.
Some of Colombia’s presidential candidates had issued statements in favor of the court’s decision, including leftist leader Gustavo Petro, who currently leads in polls ahead of May’s election.
“I congratulate the women who carried out the struggle against the criminalization of abortion,” Petro wrote on his Twitter account. “The empowerment of women that emerges from this, sex education and freedoms are a better way to protect life.”
The court’s ruling demands that Colombia’s Congress come up with clear regulations for abortion, though experts believe that could take some time, since abortion continues to be controversial.
“Congress will not be able to oppose the court’s wishes,” said Carolina Triviño, a lawyer for the Roundtable for the Life and Health of Women, a coalition of advocacy groups. Juan Manuel Charry, a constitutional expert said that Congress might try to make some adjustments to the abortion laws, though those could also be blocked by the Constitutional Court if it finds they contradict this week’s ruling.
For the moment, women who want to get abortions in Colombia will be able to do so with fewer bureaucratic hurdles up to 24 weeks into their pregnancies. Women’s rights groups hope this expands access to the procedure to women from poor and rural areas who had struggled greatly with the previous list of requirements.
“No special conditions will be demanded within the first 24 weeks,” Triviño said-. She noted that doctors can refuse to perform abortions due to their personal beliefs, but must pass their patient to a physician who is willing to carry out the procedure.