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COLOMBIA
Abortion laws challenged
Mike Ceaser
3/9/2006
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Despite strict bans on abortion, the procedure is performed widely throughout region.

When Patricia, a single woman in her mid-20s, got pregnant, she decided immediately that she could not have the baby. Panicked and lacking options, she attempted to perform an abortion on herself using ulcer medication, but it failed.

Then, on the advice of a friend, Patricia, who asked that her real name not be used, went to one of the many clandestine abortion clinics in downtown Bogota. In a two-story corner building with a sign advertising family planning services, Patricia said the "supposed doctor" performed the procedure without anesthesia and later threatened her with the police for crying too loudly. Patricia, 27, now fears that she was left infertile.

"I haven’t bothered to find out whether they did the procedure right, whether they removed some part of my body," she says.

Very few countries enforce an outright abortion

Colombia, along with Chile and El Salvador, are some of the few remaining Latin American nations that prohibit abortion under all circumstances, even in the case of rape or if the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life.

But a lawsuit now before Colombia’s Constitutional Court would decriminalize the procedure in at least some circumstances. Attorney Mónica Roa, with the organization Women’s Link Worldwide, filed a lawsuit to decriminalize abortion when the pregnancy is the result of rape, when it endangers the mother’s life or when the fetus has congenital malformations which will not permit it to survive outside the womb.

Back to the drawing board

The Court rejected the lawsuit in December. Roa immediately rewrote and re-filed the suit, this time leaving it up to the Court to decide how broadly to decriminalize abortion.

Roa, who expects a ruling by June, argues that abortion ban is a gender justice issue because botched abortions are the second-leading cause of maternal mortality in Colombia. Public health experts estimate that, despite the prohibition, between 300,000 and 400,000 Colombian women have abortions every year.

Because of the ban, many more infants are born with serious congenital deformities in Colombia than in nations where abortion is legal, says Dr. Miguel Ronderos, a cardiologist at the Hospital Fundacion Cardioinfantil in Bogota. Since abortion is illegal, doctors often do not examine fetuses for severe malformations during pre-natal exams.

"In North America and Europe, 90 percent of major malformations are detected in the womb" says Ronderos. "Here in Colombia we don’t reach one percent."

The result is anguish and extra expenses for families and society for caring for babies with little life expectancy, Ronderos says.

Many women’s rights groups and public health experts support at least a limited decriminalization of abortion. Currently, a woman in Colombia who has an abortion and the person who performs the procedure can receive a prison sentence of up to four and half years.

However, the Catholic and evangelical churches have vigorously opposed the proposed decriminalization. The Catholic Church, which counts some 80 percent of Colombians among its believers, has held rallies and collected millions of signatures opposing the abortion decriminalization.

Bishop Fabián Marulanda López, secretary-general of the Colombian bishops’ conference, argued that stronger penalties for abortion would reduce the number of abortions.

"In Colombia [laws against abortion] are only formalities," he said. "The clinics are said to be clandestine, but they operate in sight of everybody."

Some supporters of decriminalized abortion say that sexual education and increased access to contraceptives, including the emergency contraception known as the day-after pill, are the best methods for reducing the number unwanted pregnancies, and as a result, clandestine abortions that could endanger the life and health of the mother. Marulanda, however, argues that sex education only encourages promiscuity and that sex education should be done by parents.

According to Colombia’s Minister of Social Protection, Diego Palacio Betancourt, "it is calculated that 23 percent of women of reproductive age have aborted at least once," he said.

Procedure performed despite laws

Throughout much of Latin America, a region with some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws — abortion is only legal and widely available in Cuba — there are more abortions than they are in nations where the procedure is legal, according to studies.

In several Latin American nations, including Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela, legislators have introduced proposals to expand abortion access, but public and religious pressures often compound the legal restrictions on abortion.

And even where abortion is legal, it may not be available because doctors are unwilling, afraid, or not trained to carry out the procedure.

Last November, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that the Peruvian government in 2001 had denied Karen Llontoy, then-17, of her rights to abortion access — therapeutic abortion is legal in Peru. She decided to have an abortion after she learned that her fetus was missing much of its brain. The baby died four days after birth.

In Colombia, however, opinion polls show that while most people oppose the legalization of abortion under any circumstances, most support legal abortions in extreme cases such as the three scenarios attorney Roa cited in her original lawsuit.

After she filed the suit, Roa received threatening phone calls, and her home office was robbed by burglars who stole data, leaving valuables behind. The government has since assigned her bodyguards. Still, she is hopeful that the Court will favor decriminalizing abortion in the three extreme scenarios.

Pro-choice advocates point out that abortion is widely available despite the law and say that the prohibition makes the procedure more dangerous. The issue reached the headlines in February, when a 23-year-old mother of two died while undergoing an abortion in the Prosalud clinic two blocks away from the one where Patricia had her abortion. The clinic doctor warned the dead woman’s sister, who had accompanied her, to keep the death a secret.

"The problem with the prohibition isn’t that women go to jail, it’s that women die," Roa said.


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