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Colombians Push Abortion Onto National Agenda

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A 29-year-old lawyer in Colombia has filed a landmark case with the country's Constitutional Court that seeks to decriminalize abortion in the predominantly Catholic nation. Women's rights activists are cheering her on.

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A 29-year-old lawyer in Colombia has filed a landmark case with the country's Constitutional Court that seeks to decriminalize abortion in the predominantly Catholic nation. Women's rights activists are cheering her on.
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Janneth Lozano, right, joined protesters

BOGOTA, Colombia (WOMENSENEWS)--On Dec.12, Janneth Lozano joined yet another protest to decriminalize abortion in Colombia.

It was five days after the nation's Constitutional Court delayed a landmark ruling in a case that sought to create health and rape exceptions to Colombia's total abortion ban.

"The magistrates abstain while women die!" Lozano chanted with about 100 other women and men. Like many, she wore a black T-shirt saying "The Court Let Women Down."

It was her eighth rally during the last eight months on the steps of the Constitutional Court in Bogota's main plaza. Lozano is a Latin American coordinator of Catholics for a Free Choice that has an office in Bogota as well as in the United States. She gives public talks so that Catholic women who have had abortions can release their feelings of guilt and has worked for more than a decade to legalize abortion in Colombia.

"What one feels is that once again, women's rights are being put on hold," said the 47-year-old mother of two, referring to the court's inaction. "It's clear there's a lack of political will to improve women's human rights."

Monica Roa in her office at Women's Link Worldwide in Bogota. Credit: Nicole Karsin.

The protesters had gathered not only to protest but to applaud Monica Roa, the 29-year-old lawyer pressing the case. On Dec. 7, in a 5-3 vote, Colombia's Constitutional Court refrained from making a decision, saying her legal appeal contained three technical errors. Roa was back at court to re-file the case and address the judges' complaints.

"We worked all weekend until late last night," said Roa, standing among cheering supporters. "We're really tired, but I think the commitment was to file again as soon as possible and to show Colombia's public opinion that we need to stop this problem."

Law Bans All Abortions

Initially, Roa's suit sought only to legalize abortions for cases of rape, where the woman's health is at risk or when the fetus was severely deformed. But citing technical errors, the court said that it was impossible to consider partial reforms to the law when the law bans abortion altogether.

So Roa changed her demand. The revised lawsuit seeks to legalize all abortions in Colombia. The complete legalization of abortion is much less popular in Colombia's public opinion and makes it even more unlikely that the court will render a decision in her favor.

"There wasn't another option," Lozano explained. "She had to do it."

Colombia is one of three Latin American countries--along with El Salvador and Chile--where abortion is prohibited under all circumstances. While Colombian law is very rarely enforced, it provides that a woman who has an abortion and her abortion provider can be imprisoned for up to four years.

The decades-long effort by women's groups to legalize abortion through congressional laws has failed more than five times as their legislative pushes were turned back by the Congress of this predominately-Catholic South American nation. Illegal abortions are the third highest cause of maternal mortality.

Public discussion of reproductive rights was virtually taboo in Colombian society until last April when Roa, director of gender justice for Madrid-based Women's Link Worldwide, filed her lawsuit.

Roa bases her case on constitutional and international law and her principle argument is that a total ban on abortion violates the basic health and human rights that women are guaranteed under several international treaties.

Women's Groups Assisted Roa

The 29-year-old lawyer spent 10 months working alongside Colombian women's groups to write her legal challenge to Colombia's abortion law.

"I've been criticized for not giving a democratic debate, meaning not giving the debate before Congress, which is the traditionally democratic body," Roa told Women's eNews in an interview in her office. "My response has been that when there is so much fear about talking about an issue, you cannot give a traditional democratic debate."

Roa says that, while abortion may not have widespread support in the country, the role of the court requires it not to bend to popular beliefs. "Even if most people don't want abortion liberalized, the court is in charge of protecting the rights of the minority, which in this case are poor, young women without access to health care," she said.

According to Colombia's Social Welfare Ministry, some 300,000 abortions are performed here each year. Nearly 30 percent of women who have abortions suffer complications.

Roa employed what she describes as a "high-impact litigation strategy" to tackle her country's reluctance to address abortion.

First she called together some 15 Colombian women's groups that have been working on decriminalizing abortion for years. "We told them that we wanted to build on their efforts and we offered them a new strategy," Roa said.

Enlisting the support of the law schools of Yale and Harvard, Human Rights Watch, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood, and other academic and rights groups, she gathered almost 400 supporting briefs to submit to the court.

Abortion Debate Took Center Stage

Once Roa filed the first suit on April 14, Colombia's first national debate over women's reproductive rights ignited. Spearheaded by Jose Galat, the rector of the Gran Colombia University in Bogota, Catholic groups responded by submitting 2 million signatures opposing Roa's challenge in August. The heated public debate took center political stage despite a constitutional reform to permit presidential re-elections in a country contending with a 41-year-old armed conflict among two leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitary groups and the government's armed forces.

Colombia's main newspapers gave Roa their backing along with a number of high-profile officials and prominent people, including first lady Lina Maria Moreno de Uribe. But Roa also attracted numerous political enemies. In June, she began receiving telephone death threats and calls from people accusing her of genocide. Her apartment was burglarized, but only her computer, agenda and work-related items were taken while money was left untouched.

The court should issue its decision sometime before August 2006, and if the ruling maintains a total ban on abortion, Roa plans to take the case to monitors of international treaties, such as the United Nations Human Rights Committee that ruled last month, in a Peruvian case, that denying access to a legal abortion violates women's human rights.

Meanwhile, women's groups in Colombia continue to search other avenues to legalize abortion when the mother's health is endangered. Lozano and others have worked on a Congressional bill to reform abortion in some cases and expect a vote by June 2006.

"You can clearly see the high impact," Roa said as she joined the demonstrators outside the court. "And that's why I say, independent from the decision of the court, we have gained a lot."

Nicole Karsin is an independent journalist based in Bogota who has covered stories for the Village Voice, the San Francisco Chronicle and Pacifica Radio's "Free Speech Radio News," among others. 

For more information:

Women's Link Worldwide:
http://www.womenslinkworldwide.org/