How Feminists Won a Historic Abortion Ruling in Colombia

In 2020, Causa Justa in Colombia filed the case that the Constitutional Court ruled on last month, promoting a simple yet transformative argument: that abortion is a health need, and not a matter of criminal persecution.

Women attend International Women’s Day demonstrations in Bogota, Colombia on March 8, 2022. Several weeks prior, Colombia’s top court decriminalized abortion during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. (Perla Bayona / Long Visual Press / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

After months of delays, Colombia’s Constitutional Court finally gave their ruling in a historic case for reproductive justice: In a victory for women and human rights activists everywhere, the justices ruled to decriminalize abortion completely up to 24 weeks and unconditionally under the existing three exceptions. The case, brought by a collective of feminist movements known as Causa Justa, argued for the common sense idea that criminalizing abortion violates the human rights of women, girls and other pregnant people.

Just 16 years ago, Colombia had a total ban on abortions. In 2006, the feminist organization WomensLinkWorldwide secured a Constitutional Court ruling to allow abortion in cases of rape, incest or when the life or health of the woman is at risk. But women in Colombia continued to face multiple barriers to accessing legal abortions under these exceptions (or causales, in Spanish), including a lack of trained healthcare providers, bureaucratic hurdles for getting the legal permission to have the procedure and the pervasive stigma associated with criminalization of abortion. As a result, less than 1 percent of the estimated 400,000 abortions in Colombia each year are legal, meaning that the vast majority of women in Colombia must resort to clandestine and sometimes dangerous procedures. 

This situation disproportionately impacted poor, rural and younger women in Colombia, who were more likely to have an unsafe abortion and to be prosecuted for abortion. One in two poor and rural women have complications requiring medical attention after having a clandestine abortion, as compared to one in three country-wide. And nearly all the women who faced criminal penalties for having an abortion in Colombia (97 percent, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights) lived in rural areas, while two in three never completed high school, and one in two were under 25 years old, according to the Health and Human Rights Journal.  

Within this context, Causa Justa in Colombia recognized that working within the constraints of the legal exceptions was only tinkering at the margins of what was a broader public health and rights concern. In 2020, they filed the case that the Constitutional Court ruled on last month, promoting a simple yet transformative argument: that abortion is a health need, and not a matter of criminal persecution.

We celebrate the audacity and the success of the feminist organizers in Colombia, as well as the activists who have been part of the larger Green Wave sweeping across Latin America: Thousands of women, girls and their allies have been taking to the streets in the last few years to demand the liberalization of abortion laws. Waving green handkerchiefs as a symbol of the struggle for reproductive justice, they are driving change. In December 2020, Argentina’s Congress voted to allow abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy. In April of last year, Ecuador’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling to allow abortion in cases of rape, opening the possibility to further decriminalization. And in September 2021, the Mexican Supreme Court declared criminalization of abortion unconstitutional, thus creating opportunities to expand access to safe abortion across the country. 

None of these expansions of human rights would be possible without the feminist movements in Latin America that are showing the world how to defy and transform the most ingrained patriarchal rules that control women’s bodies.

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Giselle Carino is the founding CEO of Fòs Feminista, a progressive and growing feminist alliance of local partner organizations that share a commitment to ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health care; eliminating violence against women, girls, and gender-diverse people; providing sex education; and advancing gender and reproductive justice by dismantling structural sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression.