Colombia’s top constitutional court is set to rule in the coming days in a landmark case that could fully decriminalize abortion, a result that would provide the latest jolt to the feminist “Green Wave” movement that has pushed for and won expanded reproductive rights across Latin America.
In December, Argentina became the largest of the region’s nations to legalize abortion. In April, Ecuador’s top court decriminalized abortion in instances of rape, expanding the number of circumstances in which it is allowed. Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in September that criminal penalties for abortion are unconstitutional, paving the way for legalization across a country where abortion has been legal in some states for more than a decade. The same month, Chile’s lower chamber of congress opened debate on legislation to expand legal access to abortion, although it has not yet become law.
Just four Latin American and Caribbean nations ― Argentina, Uruguay, Guyana and Cuba ― have fully legalized abortion. Colombia is among the handful that allow abortion in certain circumstances: In 2006, its Constitutional Court ruled that people could terminate pregnancies in instances of rape or incest, fetal non-viability or if the mother’s health is in jeopardy.
Proponents of broader reproductive rights argue that many Colombian women and girls, especially in poor, rural areas of the country, still lack access to safe abortions, and that the existence of criminal penalties that can lead to up to 54 months in prison prevents people from seeking abortions ― or doctors from providing them ― even in instances when doing so is legal.
Two cases under consideration in Colombia’s Constitutional Court seek to remove abortion from the criminal code on grounds that current penalties violate constitutional guarantees of women’s rights. They ask the court to instead deem reproductive rights a public health matter subject to health care regulations. Decriminalization would make Colombia one of the rare places ― and the first in Latin America ― to fully remove abortion from its criminal statutes, a move that would end the threat of imprisonment and could drastically improve access to safe abortion procedures for Colombians.
The cases could also potentially lead to the legalization of abortion in all cases during the first trimester. The court has until Nov. 19 to issue its rulings, and early indications suggest that four of its nine judges will likely vote in favor of decriminalization, while only two are strongly opposed. One more vote would secure a victory for Colombia’s abortion rights movements.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” said Mariana Ardila, a lawyer for the nonprofit Women’s Link Worldwide and a lead attorney in one of the pending cases. “We have a very strong lawsuit, and strong evidence presented in front of the court. … Our hopes are high, but we also know nothing is sure until it is sure.”
Victory for the Causa Justa — or Just Cause — movement, a feminist collective of more than 100 organizations and 150 individual activists that brought one of the cases, would dismantle some of the biggest barriers to abortion. It may also bolster movements for broader abortion access in Chile, Honduras, Venezuela, Brazil and other parts of a region long dominated by social conservatism and the Catholic Church.
“Colombia, as a major player in the region, could have ripple effects in other countries,” Ardila said. “It would be huge, and our hope is that it inspires other movements in other countries that are discussing this as well.”
“Colombia prosecutes nearly 400 criminal cases of abortion each year. Roughly 97% of those prosecutions target women from rural areas, and 13% target girls between the ages of 14 and 17.”
Waving green flags and scarves, women in Latin America’s largest and most influential countries have supercharged feminist movements across the region in recent years, calling not just for broader access to abortion and contraception but also highlighting rampant problems of domestic violence, sexual abuse, economic exploitation and other issues facing women.
In Colombia, Causa Justa took up the mantle in 2018. The collective that includes lawyers, doctors, public health experts, artists, entertainers and activists brought its current case after the Constitutional Court declined to expand abortion rights in a March 2020 ruling. The movement drew hope from what seemed like a setback when the court simultaneously refused to enact the total ban on abortion a conservative lawyer had sought.
This time, lawyers have presented testimony and supporting briefs from more than 100 women, doctors and international legal experts, Ardila said. Causa Justa activists have also organized street protests, while artists, entertainers and popular TV and movie stars have produced and starred in videos that have spread testimonials from Colombian women across social media sites like TikTok and Instagram.
Abortion opponents have organized their own demonstrations and campaigns, and public opinion polls show a majority of Colombians still oppose abortion rights beyond the current exceptions.
But aside from its constitutional and public health arguments, Causa Justa’s aim is to show the court that there is a major constituency for expanded abortion access, and especially decriminalization. The movement has touted polls that show just 20% of Colombians believe women should face jail time for having an abortion. And if the court rules in its favor, Causa Justa has already begun to devise strategies to ensure the ruling is applied across the country, and to continue breaking down barriers that could still prevent people from accessing safe abortion procedures.
“Causa Justa is looking at decriminalization not only in the courts, but also in public opinion to fight a stigma in the country,” said Catalina Martínez Coral, the regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is part of the coalition. “Even after the session, we are going to continue existing as a movement. We are going to continue working.”
“Civil society organizations will play a fundamental role in implementation, as we always do in the country,” Martínez Coral said.
Data is scarce, but estimates suggest that as many as 400,000 Colombian women and girls have abortions annually, according to a 2011 study from the Guttmacher Institute. Nearly one-third of abortions each year result in complications, and roughly 70 women die annually due to botched procedures, Colombia’s Ministry of Health reported in 2014.
Only 1% to 12% of annual abortions take place within Colombia’s health system, which is heavily concentrated in its cities. Clandestine abortions that take place outside the health system occur disproportionately in rural areas, making them far more dangerous.
Criminalization of abortion has similarly disproportionate impacts. Since 2008, Colombia has prosecuted roughly 400 criminal cases of abortion each year, according to a recent study conducted by La Mesa por la Vida y la Salud de Mujeres, a feminist organization that supports decriminalization. Roughly 97% of those prosecutions target women from rural areas, other studies have found, and nearly a third of criminal cases are brought against women who were victims of sexual or gender-based violence, the Center for Reproductive Rights says.
La Mesa’s study found that 13% of prosecutions target girls between the ages of 14 and 17, and nearly a quarter of all convictions apply to minors. Colombia is effectively “forcing its girls and adolescents to give birth or go to jail,” Paula Ávila-Guillen, the executive director of the Women’s Equality Center, wrote in a Spanish-language Washington Post opinion piece in October.
“We hope that, with this decision, women can come without fear to the health care system and that we can take care of them, instead of sending them to clandestine sites or to jail,” Ardila said. “When you look into the experiences of those few countries that have [eliminated] criminal regulations, they are actually getting very good results. With time, abortions are reduced. They are done earlier in the pregnancy. And of course, they are safer. That’s what we want for Colombia.”
The COVID-19 pandemic likely only worsened the situation by severely affecting the ability of Colombian women to access contraceptives. Studies suggest that led to a spike in unplanned pregnancies, and the pandemic’s effects, Ardila said, only made the feminist movement’s push for broader abortion rights more urgent.
So did the intensifying effort to outlaw abortion in the United States. In 2017, then-President Donald Trump reinstated rules that restrict U.S. federal aid from funding organizations that provide abortion, further limiting access to reproductive health care in regions like Latin America. This August, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a new Texas law that effectively outlaws abortion.
That decision, along with fears that the Supreme Court could largely overturn Roe v. Wade in another case currently under consideration, also helped galvanize reproductive rights movements across the Americas.
“It has been a red flag, and a reminder for the feminist movement in Latin America,” Ardila said. “If it can happen in the United States, it can happen elsewhere. So we better move forward instead of being passive about it.”
The abortion rights push has faced setbacks in parts of the region, most notably in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. But an advance in Colombia would further signal that broad swaths of Latin America are joining the rest of the democratized world in expanding abortion rights ― even as the United States turns its back on them.
“We have an environment in the region that is [moving] towards the recognition of women’s rights,” Martínez Coral said. “The majority of the countries are moving forward for a more respectful recognition of reproductive rights.”