As Colombia mulls easing abortion law, teen mothers pay high price

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 16 November 2021 15:22 GMT

A woman belonging to the "Causa Justa" movement demonstrates during a symbolic event in front of the constitutional court, in favor of the elimination of abortion as a crime, in Bogota, Colombia November 11, 2021. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

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Most of Colombia’s teenage mothers struggle to continue their studies or find well-paid work, a pattern played out in much of Latin America

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, Nov 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Valentina Ramirez was about to finish her studies when she got pregnant at the age of 18 - an accident that shattered the Colombian teenager's dreams of earning a technical degree and becoming a flight attendant.

"I wanted to continue studying but it was too difficult ... I had to find work to support myself and my son," said Ramirez, now 23, who has since been working as a part-time supermarket cashier in the capital, Bogota.

As Colombia's constitutional court considers this week whether to fully decriminalize abortion, economists and U.N. officials are urging governments to consider the financial cost of unwanted teenage pregnancy - on girls and the wider economy.

"Until now, we've been focusing our advocacy effort based on the rights approach," said Federico Tobar, an advisor at the United Nations' sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA.

"But now, we're adding statements based on the contribution that preventing unintended pregnancies in adolescents could make to social development and economic growth," he said.

In Colombia, where one in five girls aged 15 to 19 are or have been pregnant, most teenage mothers struggle to continue their studies or find well-paid work - a pattern played out in other Latin American nations with strict abortion laws.

The region has the world's second-highest rate of teenage pregnancy, partly due to stringent curbs or bans on terminations that mean many girls and women have no safe options to end unwanted pregnancies and are forced to carry them to term.

Colombia's constitutional court is set to rule on whether to remove abortion from the country's penal code, which would mean women and girls who undergo an illegal abortion can no longer be prosecuted. It would not grant wider access to terminations.

The court lifted a total ban on abortion ban in 2006, allowing women to undergo the procedure only in cases of fetal abnormality, when a mother's life is at risk or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

CYCLE OF POVERTY

Most teenage pregnancies in Latin America are unplanned and many are unwanted, and it is also the region that has made the least progress in reducing the number of girls who get pregnant under 15, according to UNFPA.

Sexual violence is often to blame, said Debora Cobar, Latin America regional director for child rights organization, Plan International.

"Unfortunately, in our region there are not only very high rates of violence against girls and women but this violence is normalized," she said.

"And this evidently ends up having an impact on forced child pregnancies, which are only the tip of the iceberg of sexual violence against girls," she added.

A UNFPA report published in 2020 found teenage pregnancy in the six countries it examined - Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Paraguay - cost governments billions of dollars a year, while worsening poverty and inequality.

Teenage pregnancy costs a country on average $1.2 billion a year as a result of mothers' lost earnings, tax revenue, healthcare and hospital costs, and for the six countries the combined amount was estimated to be nearly $9 billion annually.

"There's no doubt that the economic cost of teenage pregnancy on girls and the economy should be taken more into account," said Tobar, the report's author.

As a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), pregnancies of girls aged 20 or younger on average amount to 0.35% of GDP, ranging from 0.22% in Argentina to 0.58% in Colombia.

A teenage mother loses the opportunity to earn, on average, $1,243 a year - equivalent to roughly four months pay based on Colombia's minimum monthly wage.

Teenage mothers are at greater risk of dropping out of school, being unemployed, working in the informal job market or doing unpaid domestic work.

They are also three times less likely to get a university degree compared with women who have children between the ages of 20 and 29, the UNFPA report found.

Many teenage girls who get pregnant are already poor and find it "very difficult to get out of the cycle of poverty", said Cobar.

"We're aware that the economic argument is an extremely important one and that it often helps to convince those sectors that do not believe that it's a priority, or even necessary, to invest in equality," she said.

"But it shouldn't overshadow the responsibility of states to guarantee the rights of adolescents," she added.

HEALTHCARE COSTS

Like Colombia, most countries in largely Roman Catholic Latin America only allow abortion under limited circumstances and six countries have a total ban on the procedure.

Colombia's upcoming court ruling follows a lawsuit filed last year by the U.S.-based Center for Reproductive Rights and its Colombia-based partners in the Just Cause movement - a coalition of about 200 abortion rights groups.

The lawsuit refers to the costs incurred by the nation's public healthcare system as a result of women and girls seeking treatment due to botched backstreet abortions, with Afro-Colombian women from the poor Pacific coast region most at risk.

About a third of the roughly 400,000 women in Colombia who undergo an illegal abortion each year need medical care, costing the government at least $14.4 million in hospital bills, according to the abortion rights groups.

But their lawsuit does not highlight the wider economic implications of restricting abortion, a subject that tends to be polarised between women's rights advocates and anti-abortion campaigners citing religious or moral arguments.

"The economic cost hasn't been one of the arguments in the public debate about abortion in Colombia," said Cristina Rosero, a legal advisor for the Center for Reproductive Rights and a Just Cause member.

In contrast, in the United States, scores of economists are taking a stand in abortion cases presented at the Supreme Court, highlighting the economic costs of increasing state-level abortion restrictions in "friend of the court" briefs.

Colombian women and girls who seek an illegal abortion may also end up paying a high price.

About 350 women, including 81 girls, have been convicted for abortion crimes since the outright ban was lifted 15 years ago, Rosero said.

Women with a criminal record, coupled with the social stigma surrounding abortion, find it harder to get a job.

"It creates an impediment for women and girls to enter the labor market," Rosero said.

Related stories:

U.S. abortion curbs: Fearing business impact, companies speak out

Pandemic brings growing risk of pregnancy, abuse to Latin American girls

Death of Paraguay teen rape victim in childbirth fuels abortion debate

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Helen Popper; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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