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Colombia decriminalizes abortion, becomes the latest country in Latin America to do so

The country’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of decriminalizing the practice up until 24 weeks of pregnancy.

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Having an abortion is no longer a crime in Colombia, after the country’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of decriminalizing abortion up until 24 weeks of pregnancy. 

The ruling follows years of activism by women across Latin America for greater protections and rights, including access to abortion. 

Mexico’s high court decriminalized the procedure in September and Argentina’s Congress legalized it in late 2020. Colombia’s move now means that three of the four most populous countries in the region have paved the way for more widespread access to reproductive rights. 

Until now, abortions had only been legal under certain circumstances, outlined by a 2006 Constitutional Court decision: when a women’s health was at risk, when a pregnancy resulted from sexual assault, or when a fetus had serious health problems. 

Anyone else who had an abortion, or helped someone obtain one, could be sentenced to 16 to 54 months in prison. 

Over the past few months, Colombia’s high court judges considered two petitions challenging the portion of the penal code that criminalized the procedure.

In one, a lawyer named Andrés Mateo Sánchez Molina said the measure violated rights protected by the Constitution, including the right to human dignity, freedom and equality. 

In another brought by Causa Justa, a coalition of abortion rights groups, lawyers maintained that criminalization has cast the procedure in such a negative light that it was preventing even women with a legal right to an abortion from getting one. 

According to the coalition, in some cases, the existence of the criminal penalty led health professionals to deny an abortion to women who qualified for it. 

In other cases, women avoided seeking abortions in legal health centers out of fear they would be jailed. Instead, women sought out risky alternatives in underground clinics. 

“These barriers affect mainly women living in rural and remote areas, low-income women, adolescent girls, women and girls living in situations of armed conflict and victims of gender violence, including physical and sexual violence,” Causa Justa wrote.

Ultimately, the court decided to hear the Causa Justa case first. The second case will be heard at a later date, but the first decision cannot be reversed.

“This puts Colombia on the vanguard in Latin America. This is historic,” Mariana Ardila, lawyer with Women’s Link Worldwide, part of the coalition that brought one of two cases challenging the criminalization of abortion, told The New York Times

Hundreds of Colombian women are investigated each year for receiving illegal abortions. Even women who are medically entitled to have the procedure done faced barriers to accessing treatment.

Alejandra Gutierrez, a 23-year-old cancer patient from Bogotá, told CNN that her case had to go through a panel discussion between three different specialized doctors, including a hematologist and a psychiatrist, before her request was approved.

After almost a month of numerous interviews, Gutierrez was allowed to terminate the pregnancy. But throughout the process, she said she received little clear information about the risks of ending the pregnancy or carrying the baby to term during chemotherapy. 

The Catholic Church is still a major influence in Latin America, and society has long been unsympathetic towards women seeking abortion. However, the landmark rulings in Argentina, Mexico, and now Colombia, signal a shift in perspective. 

In Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, abortion is only permitted if the person’s life is at risk or when the pregnancy is the result of rape. In El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua, the procedure is banned in nearly all circumstances. 

“This is about people understanding that regardless of their opinion, abortion is a right,” Dr. Laura Gil, a gynecologist in Bogotá who signed one of the petitions to change the law, told CNN.

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