In Colombia, abortion is allowed in cases of rape, incest, fetal malformation, or if the life of the mother or fetus is in danger
BOGOTA (TrustLaw) – Doctors and hospitals in Colombia are getting away with refusing to provide abortions to those women legally entitled to them, says a human rights activist who spearheaded a campaign to liberalise the country's abortion law.
In May 2006, human rights lawyer Monica Roa brought a case before Colombia’s constitutional court to get the country’s blanket ban on abortion partially overturned. The court ruled abortion was allowed in cases of rape, incest, fetal malformation, or if the life of the mother or fetus is in danger.
The law states doctors have the right to refuse to perform an abortion on the grounds of conscientious objection, but they still have a legal obligation to refer a woman to a colleague who will provide the procedure.
But referrals are still not a widespread practice, said Roa, programmes director at global women’s rights group Women's Link Worldwide.
“Very few doctors understand what accessing their right to conscientious objection actually means and implies,” she told TrustLaw. “Non-compliance with the constitutional decision has not been sanctioned and punished.”
Only one health-service provider has been fined for refusing to provide a legal termination since the abortion law was introduced, she added.
Health authorities across Colombia report that only 1,102 legal abortions have taken place since the new abortion law came into effect in 2006.
“All the attempts to overturn the court’s decision since then have been defeated and the law is still strong and binding, which is important,” Roa said. “But women still have not been able to access their abortion rights without obstacles and without being stigmatised,” she added.
“Overall, more women know more about their rights and the abortion law but they don’t know how to make it happen.”
Of some 400,400 abortions carried out in the country annually, only 322 are legal procedures performed in health facilities, according to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit sexual health research group.
This means women are still putting their lives at risk by having backstreet abortions.
“Too many women are still using the clandestine routes,” said Roa.
Conservative social attitudes are a key obstacle preventing women from receiving legal abortions, Roa said.
The Catholic Church in Colombia and conservative political parties and groups are vocal and influential opponents of abortion under any circumstances.
Women’s Link Worldwide is urging the Colombian government to provide better access to family planning services and improve sex education in schools.
“There’s been a lack of leadership at the national level in getting the education, health and justice sectors to work together in an integral way to grant better access to contraception pills and sex education in schools, including reproductive rights,” Roa said.
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)
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