A group of women dance and sing a reggaeton in front of the Constitutional Court of Colombia in the center of Bogotá. They wave green handkerchiefs and sing a clear message: “I am not a criminal, I am not a criminal. Eliminate the crime from the Penal Code ”. Behind them, a lonely man, dressed in yellow, prays on his knees. Inside, in the court building, one of the most important decisions for women in the country is about to be made. On the radio, a thermometer of Colombian social life, an announcer reports: “The Court will debate two issues of great importance: the protection of former President Álvaro Uribe and the decriminalization of abortion.”
The magistrates of the Court have in their hands the elimination of the crime of abortion, contemplated in the Colombian Penal Code, with penalties of 16 to 54 months, for which 400 women are criminalized annually. More than a year ago, the feminist movement Causa Justa filed a lawsuit for the court to analyze the ineffectiveness of this crime. The Court, after analyzing 114 technical briefs by experts in health, criminal law and freedom of conscience, will make a decision later this week.
In Colombia, abortion has been a right since 2006 within the framework of three causes: rape, malformations of the fetus incompatible with life outside the uterus, and risk to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman. However, the existence of crime has meant that, in practice, women continue to face a multitude of barriers to access their right. Illegal and unsafe abortions have continued to be performed in the country, sometimes with deadly consequences. That’s just one of the 90 arguments the movement has made in its lawsuit.
A few streets from the Court, while a hundred women read these arguments one by one, Ana Cristina González, pioneer of the movement that brings together 99 feminist organizations, imagines the scenario for the daily life of women in the event that the Court says Yes. “If they eliminate it, they will not be able to be persecuted again, nor threatened, nor punished. These terms are not synonymous: there is a part of the crime that punishes them socially, with what they have to live with when they go to a hospital and are reported. The cases would have to be closed at the Prosecutor’s Office. This is an immediate material effect ”, explains González, doctor and PhD in Bioethics, co-founder of the Medical Group for the Right to Decide.
The recent report Criminalization for the crime of abortion in Colombia pointed out that between 2006, when the partial decriminalization was approved, and 2019, 346 women have been sanctioned, a quarter of them are minors between 14 and 17 years old. The study also found that the most criminally persecuted are peasant women. “The most serious thing is that we discovered is that the crime of abortion is condemned more than violence,” adds González. According to the report, women who decide to have an abortion are more likely to suffer criminal proceedings when they are victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse. At least 42% of those who are prosecuted have been victims of gender violence.
For González, another effect of the magistrates’ decision will be symbolic but high-impact. “The Court would be telling the country that makes decisions that aim to eliminate discrimination against women. He would do justice to the women. It would mean that the court recognizes women as full moral subjects, with conscience and with the ability to make decisions, which we all know, “explains González, who often repeats that the elimination of the crime of abortion is a peaceful proposal:” It does not oblige no one to abort, but to those who would, it guarantees that it is safely and legitimately, not feeling like criminals ”.
The feminist movement in Colombia is exultant. Never before have they seen the possibility of the elimination of crime so close. González says that he is not a “victorist”, although he does assure that there are signs that it is a good time for the court to make that decision. On the one hand, there is a group of liberal court magistrates and two different papers are being studied that point to decriminalization. Furthermore, the social conversation about abortion has moved away from the traditional “abortion yes / abortion no” discussion. According to a survey by Cifras y Conceptos, only 20% of Colombians support that women who abort go to jail. “Today the Court would be very accompanied in its decision to eliminate the crime,” says the pioneer of Causa Justa.
The excessive use of criminal law, which is costly for the State, has been another of the arguments of the lawsuit. “The crime has not been effective or fair, nor has it protected life in pregnancy. In other words, the existence of the crime does not prevent abortion, ”says lawyer Catalina Martínez, director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
According to figures from the movement, about 90% of abortions performed in Colombia occur clandestinely, generating risks of medical complications that end up being assumed by the health system. The gynecologist Laura Gil, founder of the Medical Group for the Right to Decide, has accounted for it. “In these 12 years, the health system used 12,000 million pesos to treat complications. Money that could have been allocated to educate on contraception, so that women do not have to go to abortion, which is what we all want, “he says.
The world of clandestine clinics
While the Court makes its decision, abortion continues to occur clandestinely and the illegal clinics are in full view. In the central neighborhood of Teusaquillo, in Bogotá, there is an area where legal private foundations converge (such as Profamilia and Oriéntame, which carry out sexual education and interruptions of pregnancy with safe protocols) next to clandestine centers where abortions are performed. On many occasions they are in opposite streets or a few blocks from each other.
The so-called “card holders” swarm around these streets, men who approach women and invite them to clandestine clinics offering “better prices than in legal places.” “Miss, are you looking for an interruption?” Says one after chasing this journalist for a few meters, who was heading to a legal clinic to ask how the procedures are.
“Don’t go there, come with us, it’s cheaper. A doctor treats her, charges her 180,000 pesos (about 50 dollars) and leaves her clean, ”insists the man, who introduces himself as Carlos, while gesturing on his stomach and emphasizing:“ she stays clean ”. After asking the weeks of pregnancy and talking about the three young women that she brought that morning, she points to the “clinic”: a facade of an ultrasound shop, which would mislead anyone. “And how do I know if she’s a real doctor? What if it gets complicated, what happens? Won’t they stop me when I leave?” There’s no answer.
“The criminalization of abortion favors the existence of these sites. There are always characters who benefit, ”says Laura Gil. The doctor explains that in those clandestine places they usually take cell phones from women and it is not known if those who do the procedures are really doctors. “We have received complaints from women who have been abused during abortion or who suffer complications in those places and throw them at hospital entrances,” explains the obstetrician gynecologist, insisting that the decriminalization of abortion would make women go to places safe and maternal deaths would be avoided.
Under the methodology of Marie Stopes, an international reproductive rights organization, the Colombian movement made an analysis of 60,000 voluntary interruptions of pregnancy carried out in the last twelve years in Oriéntame (a private legal foundation) and concluded that 16 maternal deaths were avoided, 25,000 new unwanted pregnancies and 10,000 new abortions. “If the grounds were met, 48 maternal deaths a year would have been avoided,” Gil indicates.
In addition to women, health professionals would be the other beneficiaries of the elimination of the crime of abortion. For fear of appearing as “accomplices”, doctors are the ones who most denounce women to the authorities who, in some cases, even capture them in the medical centers themselves. “If the Court says yes, it would also have an effect on them, they could not be punished with jail. The regulation of the abortion service could no longer be done through criminal law or the threat of jail, but through sanitary regulations and international human rights standards ”, says Valeria Pedraza, lawyer for Women’s Link Worldwide, another of the organizations that filed the lawsuit.
As the debate takes over social networks, the silence of conservative and religious groups this year has attracted the attention of the feminist movement. They usually approach women at the gates of legal clinics and hold days of prayer, but last week, when it was believed that they would be in front of the Court, they were not visible.
Feminists hope that this November 19, the maximum date to make the decision, the radio will report that aborting in Colombia will no longer put women in jail. The country would thus join Argentina and Mexico, where during the last year the way has been cleared so that women can access the interruption of pregnancy without being criminalized.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.