Colombia Leads the Way in Latin America

At a time when U.S. lawmakers are continually throwing up new barriers to safe and legal abortion, it’s a comfort to know that at least some countries are waking up to the reality that restricting legal abortion is often more of a death sentence than a deterrent for women. In a landmark decision handed down earlier this month in response to a case brought by Colombian lawyer Monica Roa last year, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled 5-3 to decriminalize abortion in cases where a woman’s life or health is in danger, in cases of rape or incest, or under circumstances where a fetal malformation is incompatible with life outside the womb—leaving Chile, El Salvador, and, uhm, South Dakota, with the most restrictive abortion laws in the Western Hemisphere. Ladies of Sioux Falls, book your ticket to Bogotá today…

The decision was fantastic news for women in Colombia, where despite total illegality of abortion, nearly one in three women who have been pregnant have had one, adding up to an estimated 350,000 to 400,000 clandestine procedures every year. To witness what such a law looks like in practice, consider the story of Marta González, 34-year-old mother of four:

When [Marta González] was two months pregnant with her youngest daughter, the doctors found a two-cm cancerous tumour in her uterus. The cancer treatment would have ended the pregnancy, and Colombian law put the baby’s life first. González … wanted to get a clandestine abortion … However, as her pregnancy was already logged in the health system she could have ended up in prison, or the clinic which performed the abortion could have lost its licence. Thirty-four weeks later, the tumour had grown to eight centimetres. Doctors have informed her that "nothing can be done" now. The cancer has metastasised and she has perhaps only months to live.

Pro-life indeed. Read the full InterPress article on the Women’s Link Worldwide website.

Of course, one entire female population’s treasure is a tiny group of men’s trash. In Colombia, Cardinal Pedro Rubiano, president of the Bishops’ Conference, swiftly excommunicated the five Constitutional Court magistrates who voted to liberalize the law. Up north, Austin Ruse of the U.S.-based Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) issued an error-ridden recap of the decision in his notorious Friday Fax, culminating in this incredibly controversial statement from Roa:

After the decision was handed down, Roa said, “We are happy, celebrating together with women and feminists, doctors and academics and individuals who have worked for years preparing the terrain so that the suit was successful in the court and in public opinion.”

I know, can you BELIEVE she said that??

Vying for Strangest Bedfellows Award, across the Atlantic, Pope Benedict XVI and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (who once referred to the Catholic leadership as a “tumor”) managed to put aside their differences for long enough to commiserate about the decision during a meeting at the Vatican on May 11 (full coverage is available at Will Chavez’s heroic demonstration of anti-abortion cred be enough to get him off Pat Robertson’s hit list? Only time will tell.

Back in Colombia, the Court’s decision is only the first step—Roa and her allies must now push for new laws, and work to ensure that services are made available to women who need them—but it reflects a wider trend. Across Latin America, where unsafe, illegal abortion has long been a silent fact of women’s lives, the tide of public opinion is turning as citizens begin to see abortion for what it is: a matter of public health, social justice, democracy, and human rights. But try telling that to the South Dakota legislature…

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