The country’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of legalizing abortion up until 24 weeks of a pregnancy, the supreme tribunal announced in a statement.
Abortion rights advocates reacted on Monday with marches in Bogota, the capital, and other major cities, having campaigned for two decades to remove abortion from the country’s criminal code.
“We knew this was not an easy fight, but at some point it had to happen,” said Mariana Ardila, a women’s rights activist and lawyer who signed the petition to decriminalize abortion. “Of course, while we were hoping for full decriminalization, and we will keep fighting for it, this is an important step forward for us,” Ardila told CNN, surrounded by women’s rights activists outside the court on Monday evening.
Abortion in Colombia has only been legal under three circumstances: when the life or health of the woman is at risk, if the fetus has malformations that make it nonviable or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
Now, women seeking an abortion up to the 24th week of their pregnancy will not face prosecution, the court ruled. Abortion after 24 weeks remains illegal, except if one of those three circumstances is present.
Even women who are medically entitled to an abortion have faced barriers to access treatment in Colombia. Alejandra Gutierrez, a 23-year-old cancer patient from Bogota, told CNN that her case had to go through a panel discussion between a gynecologist, a hematologist, and a psychiatrist before her request was approved.
Throughout the process, she says she received little clear information about the risks of terminating the pregnancy or carrying the baby to term amid chemotherapy treatment.
Only after three weeks and numerous interviews was she allowed to end the pregnancy. “I felt so vulnerable, so small, and I still feel I never really got to the bottom of it. My fear was that it started to grow, inside my belly, and then it was too late, I was scared to death.” she told CNN in November.
Beyond the law, pregnant women in Colombia have faced bureaucratic delays, negative attitudes and medical staff who refuse to carry out the procedure under a “conscientious objection” clause.
A regional reckoning
In September, Mexico’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that penalizing abortion is unconstitutional, a decision expected to set precedent for the legal status of abortion nationwide. And in December 2020, Argentina’s Senate voted to legalize abortion up to 14 weeks into a pregnancy, making the country the largest nation in Latin America at the time to legalize the practice.
In Colombia, one woman told CNN she was forced to leave the country in 2017 to seek an abortion after becoming pregnant at the age of 15. She requested that her name be withheld due to the sensitivity and stigma of the issue there.
“I was really scared, you enter in a state of total panic when it happens, how can you think with clarity about anything in that state?” she said. She was still in high school at the time.
However, her mother agreed to help her travel to Mexico City, where the practice was legal long before it become nationwide law. “I was lucky: my mother does not support abortion and was very let down, but she still had my back. She had a good job at the time, so we could afford flying to Mexico and staying there for a week to do it. But many others can’t do that,” she told CNN.
“We all know a woman who got an abortion, it’s just that nobody knows who she is. We don’t talk about it because it’s still a taboo, under wraps, but everybody knows it,” she said.
Social taboos and public shaming around the issue remain ongoing barriers to abortion education and access, according to abortion rights activists.
“This is also about changing mentality,” said Dr. Laura Gil, a gynecologist in Bogota who signed one of the petitions to Colombia’s Constitutional Court to change the law. “We are not trying to make people change their opinion about abortion — that is a question that is important only for women who are facing an unwanted pregnancy.
“This is about people understanding that regardless of their opinion, abortion is a right,” she said.