Gaviria supporters

BOGOTA, Colombia (WOMENSENEWS)–Patricia Lara, a candidate for vice president, stood in front of a crowd of some 50,000 in the capital city’s main plaza here last Sunday and, in the name of the women and mothers of Colombia, addressed herself to her running mate.

“We must be the owners of decisions about our bodies and autonomous enough not to tolerate abuse,” Lara told the leftist presidential candidate Carlos Gaviria. “I tell you what we want: our rights guaranteed and we want to exercise the half of power that corresponds to us.”

Pre-election violence is erupting throughout this South American nation that has suffered almost half a century of armed conflict. Tension continues in the south. There thousands of indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians and farmers are protesting police brutality and the killings at least four people since May 15 for protesting against Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe and the nation’s Free Trade Agreement with the United States.

Adding to the political turmoil in this heavily Catholic country is the Constitutional Court’s decision earlier this month to create exceptions to the country’s abortion ban.

Uribe, a key ally of U.S. President Bush, is polling with 61 percent support in a field of five candidates for the May 28 election. But a recent a gain of almost 11 percentage points by Gaviria to 20 percent may cause a run-off. The data is based on an Invamer Gallup telephone poll conducted between May 12 and 15 of 1,200 Colombian adults.

To win on Sunday, a candidate must secure more than 50 percent of the votes (50 percent plus one vote) or face a second round on June 18.

One other candidate, Antanas Mockus, a former Bogota mayor, has a female running mate, Maria Isabel Patino. The team has slipped by almost 2 percentage points in the polls since April to a current 0.9 percent of support.

Severe Prohibition on Abortion

Until May 10, Colombia was one of three Latin American countries–along with El Salvador and Chile–where abortion was prohibited under all circumstances. This meant that women who sought abortions–even in cases where the procedure could save their lives–could be imprisoned up to four years.

In April 2005, Monica Roa, a 30-year-old Colombian lawyer working with the Madrid-based Women’s Link Worldwide, brought a case to the Constitutional Court in which she argued that the prohibition of abortion even in cases when a pregnancy posed a risk to the mother’s life denied women of their basic right to health.

Colombia’s highest court dismissed her legal challenge in December 2005 on technical grounds and Roa immediately submitted a new challenge to address the court’s objections.

After 13 months of considering Roa’s two legal briefs the court reached a 5-3 decision to partially lift the ban against abortion, legalizing it in cases of danger to women’s life, when the fetus has an illness that would restrict its ability to survive outside the womb or in cases of rape and incest.

Skipping the usual procedure of passing their decision on to Congress for legislators’ to debate, the judges invoked special authority to make the decision effective immediately. Twelve hours after their ruling, abortion was legalized in these cases.

“I think this a historical decision that was long overdue to Colombian women,” Roa said at an impromptu celebration in her office after the decision was announced. “And I think it’s also a triumph for all of these women’s rights activists and feminists that are here celebrating and that have been working on this issue for the longest time.”

Leaving Taboo Territory

Publicity about Roa’s case has been pushing the topic of abortion out of taboo territory in recent months. Now the timing of the court’s decision is making abortion a finish-line factor and riveting political and media attention.

At a recent event in Bogota, Gaviria, a former senator running with the Polo Democratic Party, complained to a room full of supporters that a reporter from the country’s biggest daily El Tiempo failed to report that his supporters had filled the plaza at a campaign stop in the southern town of Pasto, Narino. Gaviria said all the reporter wanted to talk about was his opinion on abortion.

With the exception of Uribe, all of the other candidates have expressed support for the partial legalization of abortion.

While serving in the Senate Gaviria, who is also a former constitutional judge, supported Roa’s case and said he supports abortion rights.

Uribe has said he is against abortion and has expressed his concern that the partial legalization will make it easier for other women to obtain an abortion. However, he did not react publicly to the court’s decision.

Here, 30 percent of the 300,000 illegal abortions performed each year result in complications that threaten women’s health and lives, according to Colombia’s Social Welfare Ministry. The ministry says abortion is the No. 3 cause of maternal mortality, responsible for 17 percent of such deaths.

Decision Too Late for Some

At the victory celebration Roa said in an interview that the court’s decision came too late for some women. “I was talking to a woman today who is probably the only reason why I am sad today. She’s dying of cancer because she couldn’t interrupt her pregnancy.”

Marta Gonzalez, holding flowers, with Monica Roa

Roa was referring to 35-year-old Marta Gonzalez who was at the celebration. Over the past couple of months she has told her story to the Colombian press and is credited with spurring support for the partial legalization of abortion.

A little more than two years ago, Gonzalez was a single mother of three when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer while pregnant with her fourth child. Unable to have a legal abortion so that her cancer could be treated, Gonzalez gave birth, giving the cancer time to develop.

The cancer has metastasized, Roa said, and Gonzalez probably has only a few more months. Now, Gonzalez has said publicly that she will likely have to leave her 22-month-old and 3-year-old daughters behind, to be raised by her oldest daughter, who is 17.

Patricia Jaramillo, who has been working to legalize abortion since 1970, says that 40 years of pressure by Colombian women have finally forced the politicians to address the issue.

“The mobilization has been strong and the candidates have realized that women can make a punishment vote,” Jaramillo, head of Gender Studies at Bogota’s National University, told Women’s eNews.

Jaramillo says that no matter who wins the election, women’s groups will need to monitor the Ministry of Social Protection as it decides how to regulate the partial legalization of abortion.

The Ministry of Social Protection is waiting for the Court’s full text of the decision to guide its implementation of regulations on legal abortions.

Roa agrees that enforcement of the ruling will require sustained activism.

“We need to make sure that the rights that were recognized by the court are not only on paper,” Roa told Women’s eNews, “but actually can be enjoyed by women and that women can access legal and safe abortion.”

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For more information:

Women’s Link Worldwide:

Center for Reproductive Rights:

Colombians Push Abortion Onto National Agenda: