Before the green scarves, the raised fist, the loudspeakers and the clamor “get your rosaries out of our ovaries”; Before Sentence C-355 of 2006, which decriminalized the voluntary interruption of pregnancy (IVE) in Colombia in three cases, Judith already knew the weight of the persecution and the lightness of the freedom that abortion entails.
The decision of the Constitutional Court on two lawsuits that seek to eliminate the crime of abortion from the Penal Code has been suspended due to the impediment declared by one of the nine magistrates before the Plenary Chamber in Colombia. An extension that is, in itself, a metaphor: it leaves those who cannot and do not want to wait on hold.
If anyone knows about it, it is the anthropologist Judith Botero, and not only because she is the mother of four children. After having undergone two clandestine abortions, since 1986 she has been fighting for the right to decide for the most vulnerable women in the department of Antioquia.
What do Judith and so many women like the ones she has fostered for decades expect?
For more than a year, in public demonstrations, panels with experts, and in virtual social networks, thousands of citizens and feminist groups have waved their banners, between dances and songs: “I am not a criminal, I am not a criminal, my Just Cause, it is my freedom ”. They have clamored for that fifth vote that, among nine magistrates, would define the elimination of the crime of abortion in Colombia.
With the arrival to the High Court of the demands of the Causa Justa movement and the citizen Andrés Mateo Sánchez, the pro-life initiatives set off their alarms through actions such as the organization of massive petitions with HazteOir or the demand of Natalia Bernal, which sought to go back and penalize abortion in all cases. The Court declared itself inhibited.
The two major world models are based on restrictions on the practice of IVE due to gestation time or due to causes. In Latin America, decriminalization sails through the storm: at the end of 2020, Argentina endorsed it for the first weeks of gestation. In September 2021, the Supreme Court of Justice of Mexico declared it unconstitutional to criminalize abortion and recognize the right to life from conception. The ruling, which covered the legislatures of Coahuila and Sinaloa, set a precedent for the other states.
Although progress in countries such as Uruguay and Cuba is laudable, the region still has a human rights mole: El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Haiti criminalize abortion, without exception.
In Colombia, the Constitutional Court is in charge given the historical incompetence of Congress to legislate on matters that concern a dignified life, such as euthanasia and abortion.
This apparently urban discussion reveals its reality in Colombia: according to figures from the Prosecutor’s Office, between 2010 and 2017 97% of the women reported for abortion were inhabitants of rural areas.
In a popular intellectual sector of Medellín, I meet Judith, a living legend of feminism. Come to our appointment in sportswear, loosen your chinstrap and order a beer “al clima”. In 1979, a foreign doctor performed an abortion with the manual vacuum aspiration technique. Years later, when she needed him again, she learned that the doctor had disappeared: “A high-class woman, before a bishop of the Metropolitan Cathedral, confessed that she had had an abortion. He told him that if he did not tell him who had done it, he would not give him absolution ”. The police captured him in an operation with an undercover agent, he went to jail and then returned to his homeland.
In 1986, she worked as a counselor in a health organization dedicated to the care of “Treatment of incomplete abortion.” The patients came from all social classes and corners of Antioquia. Peasant women are usually the ones who have the clearest need to decide about motherhood, says Judith.
A lottery vendor from Carmen de Viboral (eastern Antioquia) who was attended by teenagers from the town, made an appointment with Judith for a sixth-grade peasant woman, pregnant by her teacher. The girl never arrived: she ingested a chemical to fumigate orchards. When the father went to collect the body from the morgue, the forensic doctor told him: “Your daughter was pregnant.” And he replied: “Then, better this way.”
What did the women who came to that emergency department eat? “The German brandy [purgante] or concoctions of seven herbs with beer or very hot coffee and Mejoral ”. Bladder catheters were also inserted without caution into the uterus.
That health service lasted two years: it was closed due to bomb threats and intimidation by Monsignor Alfonso López Trujillo. Two decades passed for the conservative society to turn against another health project that contemplated the practice of the IVE: the “Women’s Clinic”. The then prosecutor Alejandro Ordóñez (today the Colombian ambassador to the OAS) sent a delegation to finish the original project. And he achieve it. No mayor of Medellín has dared to recover it.
From 1989 to 2006 (Sentence C-355), Judith remained in hiding.
As long as abortion remains in the Penal Code, peasant women, poor youth and migrants fearful of the authorities’ reaction will continue to go to clandestine garages, where they search for their way to the uterus with curettage forceps, mesh needles, reed onions and syringes with salt. Or they will die intoxicated in rituals that include beverages made with nameless herbs, even mixed with gunpowder.
The elimination of crime would allow the construction of a model that guarantees and protects the most vulnerable women. If a deadline system is endorsed, rural women, raped in conflict zones or victims of incest, will continue adrift: not all of them find a Judith to take them in.
Barriers to abortion are founded on crime: if it is eliminated from the Penal Code, the obstacles in the health service disappear. Otherwise, delays in authorizations by officials of the medical sector and institutional conscientious objections will prevail. Such conduct, based on ideological or religious prejudice, will continue to go unpunished.
Eliminating crime does not mean stopping the regulation of abortion, but rather registering it in the field of health.
Despite the fact that this extension seems a failure, Colombia is facing an indisputable triumph: to register the discussion in the field of women’s health.
18 years ago, when I crossed the threshold of the doctor’s office who would perform an illegal abortion, I was tormented by Shakira’s echo: “A child would be born and you already knew the date […] You went to the doctor to end the problem ”. The chronicle of that song – “It is wanted, it kills itself” – one day it will be history. And in Colombia they will all be daughters of Judith: women who decide to be or not to be mothers … with freedom.
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