'The court owes it to women': Groups decry Colombia's abortion ruling delay

Women’s groups suing decriminalization of abortion in Colombia are pushing for a decision after a highly anticipated ruling by the country’s highest court was postponed last week.

“The court owes it to women,” Catalina Martínez Coral, director of the Center for Reproductive Rights for Latin America and the Caribbean, told Noticias Telemundo.

The Constitutional Court has not yet decided whether to remove abortion as a criminal offense from the country’s criminal code. The verdict was expected last week, but the debate was suspended at the request of one of its judges, Alejandro Linares, to hold off the poll because he had spoken about the case in a news interview.

Should another judge decide that Linares does not have to retire, the court could rule this year. A rejection would initiate proceedings to appoint a new judge, which would postpone the verdict until next year.

The women’s rights groups that have filed the lawsuit are grouped under the umbrella movement Just causesays the delay harming women and girls in Colombia, where almost 70 women die from abortions every year, according to MSF data.

“Every day that goes by there are more vulnerable people because they do not have access to reproductive health services. They are being prosecuted and have pending lawsuits against them, ”said Martínez Coral. “It’s a punishment for women and girls in Colombia.”

Since 2006, the Colombian Criminal Code has allowed legal abortions under three circumstances: rape, incest or non-consensual fertilization; in severe fetal malformations that make life impossible; or when the medical team confirms that the health or life of a pregnant woman is at risk.

Any woman who otherwise undergoes the procedure – or the health workers involved – can be punished with a prison sentence of 16 to 54 months. According to official figures, 400 women are prosecuted every year.

“It’s a very unfair situation because, on the one hand, exceptions give you a right, but it’s also a serious crime that creates social and institutional stigma,” said Ximena Casas Isaza, a researcher with Human Rights Watch that creates many barriers for women and men Girls in vulnerable situations who ultimately have no access to basic health care such as legal abortion. “

An estimated 400,000 women and girls in Colombia undergo induced abortions each year, about a third of whom experience complications. Unsafe abortions are the fourth leading cause of maternal mortality in the country.

Several studies have found that girls and adolescents are most likely to be sexually abused, leading to unwanted pregnancies. In many cases their life is in danger.

Corresponding a report From Just Cause, 73 percent of the 26,158 cases prosecuted for allegations of sexual violence were girls or adolescents up to the age of 17. They are also the ones who suffer the most from criminal harassment, the report said.

“We want more support”

Cindy, a Colombian woman whose last name is withheld to protect her identity, said she was unable to raise a child but feared her family could face charges with the abortion. She decided to speak to her partner and a good friend who was with her throughout the abortion process.

“Those of us who made this decision want more support – let them understand that for some reason this was the decision we made,” she said.

Abortion rights activists protest outside the Constitutional Court in Bogota, Colombia, Thursday as judges examine a lawsuit aimed at decriminalizing abortion. Fernando Vergara / AP

Cindy and hundreds of other Colombian women have participated in awareness campaigns such as We are all one, spoke to dozens of non-governmental organizations and women’s rights groups calling for abortion to be decriminalized.

The movement was driven by the recent wave of reforms and Demonstrations for women’s rights in various Latin American countries such as Argentina and Mexico.

Girls and adolescents are hardest hit

The Just Cause report found that for most girls and adolescents who become pregnant through rape and sexual abuse, “the aggressors correspond to people in their social or family circle,” added, “These heartbreaking numbers only represent cases that are reported “. . “

The health system is using the current law as an excuse to refuse to provide services, said Paula Ávila-Guillén, executive director of the U.S. Women’s Equality Center, which leads the group’s Latin American initiatives. “That is why we have so many cases of rape pregnant girls who do not have access to an abortion because there are many bureaucratic hurdles.”

According to the Mesa por la Vida y la Salud de Mujeres group, minors make up 12.5 percent of abortion examinations – almost a quarter, 24 percent, are convicted.

Although the crime does not result in jail time in many cases, it nonetheless has serious implications for the lives of young women with a criminal history that prevents them from finding work and moving forward, said Martínez Coral, of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

The persecution of health workers

“The fear of the medical professionals is great because they first have the burden of certifying the abortion requirements and if there are any legal problems it is of course much easier to turn your back on this problem,” said Dr. Laura Gil, gynecologist and member of the Medical Group for the Right to Decision.

Research by the Life and Health of Women Roundtable, a women’s health advocacy group, found that prosecutors handled 5,580 abortion complaints from 1998 to 2018, and that 75 percent of the cases were doctors and other health care providers who complained about women who complained felt sick due to hospital abortions.

That, Gil said, has a chilling effect on other health care workers.

“Many doctors ask for a series of assessments, exams, and requirements – they just create barriers. It is an obstacle to the free pursuit of our profession, “Gil said.

What would total decriminalization change?

The first effect would be that no one could be prosecuted for the crime of abortion. In addition, women, adolescents and girls could terminate pregnancies without barriers.

“Women who were not protected by the country’s exemptions will have access to an abortion the day after the decision,” Martínez Coral said.

Lawyers for women who are prosecuted or incarcerated could also “appeal directly to seek their release,” she said.

Catholics who support abortion rights

Anti-abortion groups, including conservative political movements and the Roman Catholic Church, have spoken out against the proposal.

The Right to Rule Catholic Group stands out because it supports the lawsuit.

“We believe that promoting abortion as a right is not incompatible with a belief or a spiritual life,” said Aura Carolina Cuasapud, an attorney for the organization. “On the contrary: we know that women are the majority of people who are the foundations of religion and church, so we have to have a voice and the right to make free decisions.”

Members of the movement are labeled as false Catholics or hypocrites on social media, where opponents associate some of them with satanic sects and threaten them with excommunication from the Catholic Church. Cuasapud laughed when asked about the attacks.

“In the worst case, excommunication doesn’t prevent you from being a Catholic. If you have been baptized, you cannot break that condition, you cannot break your faith, ”she said, adding that she believes that“ the truth is that neither the Bible nor the Church nor God is abortion as a sin condemn, and many people I don’t know. “

An earlier version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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