Feb 21, 2022 - World

Colombia's high court decriminalizes abortion in historic decision

Colombia abortion rights protesters

Colombia's Constitutional Court on Monday voted 5-4 to decriminalize abortions in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy in what proponents called a historic decision for women's rights.

The big picture: It's the latest sign that views about the procedure are shifting in Catholic-majority Latin American countries, especially as the right to an abortion in the U.S., which served as a cultural example, is at risk.

What they're saying: “This is a historic decision not only for Colombia, but for all Latin America because it establishes abortion should be completely taken out of the criminal code. Hopefully other countries follow suit,” said Colombia-based lawyer Mariana Ardila, who works for Women’s Link.  

  • “Now there will be civil health regulations, so women can have information, accompaniment, access to procedures and contraceptives instead of fearing criminal charges if they use the health system," she told Axios Latino.

Catch up quick: Colombia in 2006 legalized abortions in cases of rape reported to authorities, risk to the women's life or of an unviable fetus. Cases outside those circumstances carried a possible jail sentence of up to four and a half years.

  • On average, 400 such criminal cases have been opened yearly — 20% of them against minors, according to government data. 
  • A collective of about 90 women's rights filed a lawsuit in September 2020, arguing that country's laws around abortion were unfair to women and the three exemptions weren't enough.
  • The Constitutional Court's debate was repeatedly delayed due to requests for the recusal of judges that had publicly expressed opinions about abortion in the past.
  • A poll this month showed 49% of Colombians are against jailing women who seek an abortion. In April 2021, that number hovered at 36%.  

By the numbers: Studies show only about 12% of 400,000 yearly abortions in Colombia take place in official health centers. 

  • Women's rights groups tell Axios Latino that’s because most women, especially those from rural areas, fear facing charges when going to a clinic to ask for the procedure or when they seek medical attention after an illegal abortion in a clandestine site — about 70% of criminal cases originated that way, said Ardila. 
  • An estimated 70 women die every year in Colombia due to unsafe abortions, according to studies from the Health Ministry.
  • While the Constitutional Court debated the case, at least one woman — Lorena Gellis Palomino, who was 13 weeks pregnant — reportedly died from an unsafe abortion, underscoring the importance of making safe procedures legally available for all women, women's rights groups said.

State of play: Colombia is the latest Latin American country to make abortion more accessible in recent years.

  • Mexico’s Supreme Court said in September that laws criminalizing abortion are unconstitutional, opening the door for changes across the country. 
  • Abortion was legalized across Argentina by its Congress in December 2020 after years of massive protests. 
  • Meanwhile, Ecuador’s National Assembly last week established new regulations that allow abortions, now legal in cases of rape and a woman's life is at risk, after a Constitutional Court order.
  • Chile's Constitutional Convention voted in February to include abortion as a right in the country's new magna carta. Terminating a pregnancy has been legal in Chile since 2017 in cases of sexual violence, when the fetus is unviable or when the woman’s life is in danger. 

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