BOGOTA, Colombia — As some U.S. states place more restrictions on abortion and Americans brace for the possibility that the Supreme Court will soon overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing the procedure, several Latin American countries have moved in the opposite direction.
The latest nation to do so was Colombia. On Feb. 21, Colombia’s Constitutional Court legalized abortion during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.
“Colombia now is the country with the most progressive abortion laws in Latin America and the Caribbean,” says Mariana Ardila, managing attorney in Colombia for the rights group Women’s Link Worldwide. In the Americas, she added, only Canada has more liberal abortion regulations than Colombia.
Colombia used to be a socially conservative country with an influential Catholic church. Women were not even granted the right to vote until 1954. Until 2006 there was a total ban on abortion. But that didn’t stop women from interrupting their pregnancies in often dangerous ways.
“In the 1970s, abortion was the first cause of maternal mortality,” says Dr. Laura Gil, a Colombian gynecologist and abortion rights activist.
“Most of the abortions were carried out with traumatic procedures. It could be people that had no training at all and would try with knitting needles,” she says. “Many women would try to get abortions by injuring themselves, by falling down the stairs or by drinking poison. I can remember women with their internal organs totally destroyed and handcuffed to their beds and being interrogated by the police.”
But a number of things have changed over the years.
As Colombia became a more urban and educated society, church influence waned. Colombia’s long-running guerrilla war was also a factor. Partly to convince left-wing guerrillas to disarm and take part in legal politics, Colombian lawmakers in 1991 agreed to write a new, more progressive constitution.
The search for peace “was a very important factor in all of this,” says Arlene Tickner, an international relations professor at Rosario University in Bogotá.
Although the war continued, the 1991 constitution strengthened individual rights and laid the groundwork for landmark court decisions legalizing euthanasia in 1997 and same-sex marriage in 2016 and expanding abortion rights.
In 2006, the Constitutional Court, which was established under the new constitution, decriminalized abortion in cases of rape, fetal malformation and when the woman’s health is in danger. As the procedure became more common, and as deaths from illegal abortions diminished, polls showed more and more Colombians supporting some form of abortion rights.
Then came Latin America’s so-called marea verde or “green wave” of demonstrations.
They started in Argentina in 2018 when activists wearing green scarves – the color of the pro-choice movement in Latin America — took to the streets of Buenos Aires and other cities to pressure lawmakers into legalizing abortion. In 2020, Argentina’s Congress voted to legalize abortion in the first 14 weeks of gestation. Last year, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that criminal penalties for abortion are unconstitutional.
These developments fed the push to broaden access to abortion in Colombia, says Ardila of Women’s Link Worldwide, which was one of several Colombian groups that last year petitioned the Constitutional Court to address the abortion issue.
“The victories of one country inspire other countries,” she says. “We share strategies. We talk to each other. We learn from each other.”
One recommendation ahead of the February court decision, she said, was to use familiar faces to destigmatize abortion. The result was a widely circulated video in which Colombian TV and film stars point out that women from all walks of life seek abortions, whether or not it’s a crime and sometimes with tragic results.
Prior to the court decision, most Colombian women seeking to prematurely end their pregnancies took the drug Misoprostol, often prescribed for stomach ailments, which was a relatively safe way to induce abortions even though doing so remained illegal, says Dr. Gil, the gynecologist. But others, some of whom didn’t know about Misoprostol, resorted to riskier, clandestine medical procedures.
In January, Lorena Gelis, a 37-year-old woman in the northern Colombian city of Barranquilla died from severe bleeding after a botched, unauthorized abortion, her former partner, Sergio Ordosgoitia, told NPR.
“I spoke with her on the phone the day she died, and she sounded in really bad shape,” Ordosgoitia, who was traveling in Europe at the time and is now looking after their two teenagers on his own. “The news of her death was cruel and devastating.”
Advocates predict such tragedies will become mostly a thing of the past following the Constitutional Court’s February ruling. But its narrow 5-4 decision legalizing abortion has provoked a backlash, with anti-abortion groups holding marches in the streets of Bogotá, the Colombian capital.
Critics, like Ivan Duque, Colombia’s conservative president, are outraged that the court’s decision allows abortion for up to 6 months of pregnancy. (They set the cutoff point at 24 weeks because after that premature babies have a better chance of surviving outside the womb.)
“Five people cannot tell an entire nation something so atrocious — that a life can be cut off at 6 months,” Duque told reporters after the ruling.
Elsewhere in Latin America, many people and government officials feel the same way. Although abortion is available on demand in Cuba, Guyana and Uruguay, the procedure remains illegal under most circumstances across much of the region. Abortion is totally banned in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, even in cases of rape or incest.
Still, Dr. Gil says that the recent legal breakthroughs in Argentina, Mexico and Colombia could help the Green Wave spread to other countries in the region. The latest to take up the issue is Chile. There, a special assembly is writing a new constitution that is expected to include abortion rights.
“This will ultimately lead to a wider legislation, like the (court ruling) that we got,” she says of the court ruling in Colombia. “It’s an example for the rest of the region.