By Catalina Martínez Coral, Senior Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights, and spokesperson for the Causa Justa movement
On 21 February 2022, Colombia’s Constitutional Court issued a historic ruling decriminalising abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. After this period, abortion will only be permitted in certain circumstances. This decision was widely celebrated by the feminist movement and other voices in the country, who hailed it as a major step forward not only for women’s rights but also for democracy and social justice. Colombia is now at the forefront of reproductive rights, joining other countries of the global south that today set an example in Latin America and worldwide.
February’s ruling was as a result of five organisations filing a lawsuit and, most importantly, of a series of educational, activist, communications and awareness-raising initiatives by the Causa Justa movement, driven by the belief that the legal fight alone was not enough.
What is the link between decriminalising abortion and democracy? Why do we speak about social justice in relation to a constitutional decision on the matter? What steps do we still need to take?
Individual freedoms, autonomy and democracy
The decriminalisation of abortion recognises that it is up to women and people who seek access to this procedure to make this decision autonomously for themselves, their bodies and their future. No-one else. Before the recent decision of the Court, a third party could decide whether a pregnant person could get an abortion for medical reasons or by filing a criminal complaint on the grounds of rape.
Women’s ability to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health is fundamental to gender equality, women’s empowerment and a healthy democracy. Without it, women are not able to determine their life, career paths or exercise their rights as citizens; nor can they exercise political decision-making – either in the private or the public sphere. Without these individual freedoms, there is no democracy.
Equality and social justice
One of the main criticisms by opposition groups of the Constitutional Court’s ruling was the extension of the decriminalisation limit until the 24th week of pregnancy. Yet women tend to make such a decision as early as possible. In countries such as Canada and Australia or the State of New York, an average of 90% of people chose to get an abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. Additionally, these are countries that have gone further than Colombia, eliminating abortion from the Penal Code entirely.
Nonetheless, access to abortion needs to be guaranteed over a reasonable period of time so that those who – for whatever reason – cannot access the service at an early stage can do so safely. People who may need this service in later stages include victims of sexual violence and women living in rural or low-income areas. According to data collected by Causa Justa movement, rural women suffered 53% of unsafe abortion complications, on average per year. Likewise, 4 268 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 gave birth in Colombia in 2020, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics – girls who should have been protected on the grounds of rape.
The Court’s decision recognises that the criminalisation of abortion disproportionately impacts women who are vulnerable, such as migrant women in an irregular situation. With the decriminalisation of abortion until the 24th week, the health system is opening its doors to all women, regardless of their situation or where they live. That is why reproductive health is also an issue of social justice.
The main objective of the Causa Justa movement was to entirely eliminate abortion as a crime from the penal code and create a model of regulation through health initiatives, as has already been done in other countries. This model would allow for abortion to be regulated outside the penal code and within the health system, guaranteeing women access to this service without fear of being criminalised, stigmatised or forced to get an abortion in unsafe conditions. This model has in fact just been recommended by the World Health Organization.
Although the Court missed the opportunity to take a decisive step towards eliminating the crime of abortion, it urged Congress and the national government to formulate a comprehensive public policy on sexual and reproductive rights, which must be regulated outside the penal code. This comprehensive policy must consider not just access to abortion, but also to a full range of reproductive services, including sexual education, access to contraception and access to quality maternal healthcare without discrimination.