FACTBOX: Colombia decriminalizes abortion amid Latin American shift

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 22 February 2022 12:19 GMT

Women react after Colombia's constitutional court voted to decriminalize abortion until 24 weeks of gestation, in Bogota, Colombia February 21, 2022. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez.

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Monday’s landmark court ruling makes Colombia the region's third country in two years to decriminalize abortion, after Argentina and Mexico

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, Feb 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Colombian court ruling this week that decriminalizes abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy is the latest gain for abortion rights in Latin America, where some of the world's toughest curbs are meeting growing opposition.

As a number of U.S. states enact laws making it more difficult for women to get an abortion, Monday's ruling makes Colombia the region's third country in two years to decriminalize terminations, following Argentina and Mexico.

Abortion rights advocates celebrated the decision by the Andean nation's constitutional court.

"After the right to vote, this is the most important historic achievement for the life, autonomy ... of women," Claudia Lopez, mayor of the capital, Bogota, tweeted.

The ruling could help pave the way for a wider easing of abortion curbs in socially conservative Latin America, said Paula Avila-Guillen, executive director of the Women's Equality Center, a U.S.-based healthcare and rights organization.

A handful of countries, mostly in Central America, have total bans on abortion, including in cases of rape or incest, or when the women's life or the fetus is in danger.

"This will have a ripple effect," Avila-Guillen, an international human rights lawyer, said in a statement.

Here are some details about the Colombian ruling and other countries that have recently liberalized abortion access:

COLOMBIA

Backed by five of nine judges, Monday's ruling means women in Colombia will not be prosecuted for seeking abortions up to 24 weeks of gestation, after which the procedure will only be allowed under the original three conditions as set in 2006.

This includes only allowing abortion in cases of rape, if a mother's life is at risk or if a fetus is malformed, without any time limits.

About 90% of abortions in Colombia take place clandestinely, putting women's lives at risk, according to the Causa Justa (Just Cause) abortion rights coalition, which sued before the constitutional court for decriminalization in September 2020.

"The immediate impact is that women and girls will not be forced to have clandestine abortions," Avila-Guillen, the human rights lawyer, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Abortion access campaigners say strict laws affect mostly poor and rural women and those with little access to healthcare, who are also more likely to be prosecuted for abortion and forced to seek potentially dangerous backstreet terminations.

"It will make a huge difference, especially for those who live in rural areas where access to abortion is hardest to secure, even in circumstances resulting from sexual violence," said Nancy Northup, president and chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights, one of five groups that filed suit at the constitutional court.

ECUADOR

In neighboring Ecuador, the national assembly voted earlier this month to approve regulations that would let women and girls access abortion in cases of rape, a step that followed a ruling by the constitutional court last year.

The reform could still be blocked by President Guillermo Lasso, a conservative who has said he personally does not support abortion but will allow lawmakers to regulate the procedure as long as they do not exceed court stipulations.

Under the changes, women aged over 18 will be able to abort pregnancies arising from rape until 12 weeks of gestation, while under-18s will have up to 18 weeks of gestation.

Since 1938, abortion has only been allowed in Ecuador in cases when a woman's life is at risk or when a woman or girl with learning disabilities is raped.

MEXICO

In September 2021, Mexico's Supreme Court unanimously ruled that penalizing abortion is unconstitutional in a seismic victory for women's reproductive rights in the world's second-biggest Roman Catholic country.

People take part in a protest against Mexico's Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (SCJN), which ruled that criminalising abortion is unconstitutional, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, October 3, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

It means that courts can no longer prosecute abortion cases and send women to jail for terminating their pregnancy.

Since the court's decision, however, not all states have put the ruling into effect and there is still some "confusion" in some states about adapting their legal framework in line with the ruling, said Avila-Guillen

So far, seven out of Mexico's 32 states have changed their state laws following the top court's decision, she said.

ARGENTINA

In December 2020, Argentina became the first major country in Latin America to legalize abortion, bucking opposition from the influential Catholic Church to allow terminations up to the 14th week of pregnancy.

CHILE NEXT?

In Chile - where abortion is only allowed in cases of rape and other limited circumstances - leftist President-elect Gabriel Boric has vowed to make it freely available, as it is in neighboring Argentina and in Uruguay under certain time limits.

Boric, a 36-year-old lawmaker and former student protest leader, will take office on March 11.

Related stories:

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

U.S. states making 2021 moves on abortion rights and access

U.S. abortion rights: Could a Mississippi case overturn Roe v Wade?

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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