The expectations placed on the Constitutional Court, which this Friday had to decide on the decriminalization of abortion in Colombia, fell apart on Thursday night. One day after an expected historic ruling, the debate has entered a legal limbo that makes it impossible to predict when there will be a verdict. The decision on whether one of the nine judges that make up the court can participate in the debate now prevents its progress. The Just Cause movement, which brought the decriminalization of abortion to the Court, has assured this Friday that they will make “all efforts” within their power to sustain the discussion and prevent the high court from delaying the decision.
To understand what has happened between the magistrates you have to go back to a week ago. Then, the Court ruled against withdrawing the status of defendant from former President Álvaro Uribe in a case of bribery of witnesses. In an interview with the magazine Week, Judge Alejandro Linares, a member of the court, spoke about the president’s case and made some dissertations on the work of the magistrates. His words were these: “For example, next week we have another big pork rind [problema difícil], which is the abortion issue. On that subject, one also hears multiple opinions, people very close to one, like the mother who tells him that it is crazy to decriminalize abortion, or has the children of one who say: hey, dad, I agree with you with the decriminalization abortion, or I disagree with you. Each person, let’s say, has a very personal vision of what a court ruling should be ”.
After these words, a lawyer asked the magistrate to be challenged for revealing the meaning of his vote, although it was already known that Linares was in favor of decriminalization due to other previous votes. The same judge, already involved in the controversy, decided to present to his colleagues his “impediment” to be withdrawn from the case, although in his brief he maintains that there is no reason to remove it because he did not express his opinion in his statements, beyond the fact that this is already known. This Thursday, the eight remaining judges had to vote whether or not to accept Linares’ “impediment”. That was what was debated a day before the deadline to deliver a verdict on abortion in Court, instead of entering the substantive debate of a case that reached the high court more than a year ago.
The result on Judge Linares was a tie four to four, which now forces a legal procedure of uncertain time. The Court must call another judge to tip the balance for or against the magistrate. Meanwhile, the decision to eliminate or not the crime of abortion from the Penal Code remains in limbo.
Never before has Colombia been so close to making history on sexual and reproductive rights. Among the plaintiffs, more than 90 organizations integrated in the Just Cause movement, the feeling in these previous weeks was that a single vote could decide the ruling. The spokespersons for Causa Justa assured this Friday, in a public ceremony, that there is no legal reason to remove Judge Linares.
In case of ruling in favor of decriminalization, Colombia would become the first Latin American country to eliminate the crime from the penal code. A path that Uruguay opened in 2012 and in recent months Argentina and Mexico. The crime still persists in some Mexican states and outside of free abortion in the first 14 weeks that Argentina legalized a year ago. Colombia would thus be the first country to prevent any woman from being brought to justice for an interruption of pregnancy. Currently, each year about 400 women are criminalized for having abortions, a sentence that falls mainly on those in the rural world.
In Colombia, the right to abortion coexists in three causes – rape, malformation of the fetus incompatible with life or risk to the physical or mental health of the woman -, approved in 2006, with the crime in case of interruption of pregnancy outside of these cases . In practice, the possibility of a conviction has slowed access to safe and legal abortion. Especially among the most vulnerable women. The fear of being reported separates thousands of women from legal clinics, even if they are within the grounds.
The plaintiffs now place their trust in the Court as they did 15 years ago, when the right to abortion was obtained through the courts in all three cases. The magistrates have asked Congress on numerous occasions over the years to take the reins of the debate and assume its responsibility to legislate on human rights, but successive governments have so far avoided entering into cases that generate controversy in society. such as abortion or euthanasia.
Colombian society recognizes that it is mostly believers – 97% of citizens according to a 2017 survey – and the weight of the Catholic and evangelical churches, radically against the decriminalization of abortion, is still powerful. However, the awakening of the feminist movement in the country, as in the rest of the region, over the last decades has led to a change of mentality in matters of equality and reproductive rights. Today, only 20% of Colombians are in favor of a woman who has an abortion going to jail.
Causa Justa recognizes this delay in the decision that the Court should have taken this Friday as one more obstacle in the process, but warns that it has nothing to do with the substantive debate on decriminalization, but rather a discussion on “A formal procedure”. “We are not going to give up and we will take advantage of this situation to continue the conversation about the importance of advancing in the decriminalization of abortion, encouraging many more people to join this cause and this movement. We continue standing with strength and with the conviction that the Constitutional Court is going to make a decision that will do justice to women, ”he defends in a statement.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.