Monica Roa

LONDON (WOMENSENEWS)–Monica Roa, the 31-year-old lawyer who argued a case before Colombia’s Supreme Court that liberalized the nation’s restrictive abortion law in May 2006, shared her winning strategies here last week.

She spoke at the Global Safe Abortion Conference, held at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center, an Oct. 23-24 gathering that organizers said drew well over 700 participants from around the world. As she spoke, 50-odd abortion protesters stood outside, reading from the bible and handing out pamphlets that read “So killing someone is now a human right?”

Roa, who at 29 filed the case against the Colombian government as a concerned citizen, was one of five speakers on a legal-reform panel.

Her case made abortion legal in cases where a woman’s life or health is in danger, the pregnancy is a result of rape, or a fetal anomaly limits life outside of the womb. Previously, Colombian law forbid abortions in all instances.

Roa said her organization, Women’s Link Worldwide, which has offices in Colombia and Spain, took a “court targeting” approach that included getting to know the judges presiding over various junctures of the case and including them in their informational outreach.

Roa asked the audience of 500 or so to raise their hands if their organizations published documents. Nearly every hand went up. Next, she asked whether or not they had any judges on their mailing lists. A couple of faltering hands stayed up.

“Whether you win or lose in parliament, the very next day, someone will go bring a challenge in court,” she said, highlighting how the abortion battle has decamped from the political to legal arena.

Widening the Abortion Debate

Roa said her group also maintained a vigorous public relations front, briefing reporters and editors on the issues before filing their legal complaint so a more nuanced discussion could be had in the public sphere. She said this helped widen a moral and religious debate to one that also touched on concepts of gender and social justice. “We democratized the debate,” Roa told Women’s eNews. “It wasn’t a black-and-white debate anymore.”

Roa also refused to argue with the Catholic Church–a strong foe of abortion reform–through the press. “If you want to talk about the legal challenge that I filed, you bring me a lawyer,” she said she would tell reporters.

The conference was organized by Marie Stopes International, the London-based reproductive rights and health group, and Ipas, an organization based in Chapel Hill, N.C., that works to enhance women’s ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights. Many conference participants–delegates from women’s rights groups, doctors and journalists–spilled over from the Women Deliver conference, a major meeting on maternal mortality held in London a few days earlier and sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund, the development agency focused on reproductive rights.

Speakers at the abortion conference frequently reminded the audience that in the 15 minutes it takes to make a presentation, two women will die of an unsafe abortion in places where the procedure is illegal.

Unsafe abortion contributes to an estimated 68,000 deaths a year, according to a World Health Organization study. Of these deaths, 97 percent occur in the developing world.

British Law Under Scrutiny

While the conference celebrated 40 years of safe, legal abortion in the United Kingdom under the 1967 Abortion Act, the same law was being debated in Parliament.

Doctors who are both for and against narrowing the time frame for legal abortions from the current limit of the 24th week of pregnancy–widely assumed to be the point of viability outside the womb–to somewhere between the 20th and 23rd week testified in front of the Commons Science and Technology Committee.

Witnesses who appeared before the committee included five general practitioners and pediatricians who belong to the Christian Medical Fellowship, a London-based group with a strong anti-choice stance.

Sixty-five percent of U.K. doctors favor narrowing the abortion window, a survey released on Oct. 17 by Marie Stopes found. Nearly two-thirds favored a limit of between 20 and 23 weeks.

Current British law requires two doctors’ signatures approving an abortion. The Stopes survey found doctors, by a ratio of 2-to-1, favored eliminating the two-signature requirement for the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. The British Medical Association also backs eliminating the doctors’ signatures in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy.

Christine McCafferty, a member of Parliament who chairs a 75-member parliamentary group that works to increase access to sexual and reproductive health services worldwide, kicked off the conference by defending British women’s right to choose. “It’s not just a health issue, it’s a rights issue, and a quality of life issue,” she said.

Parliament is expected to continue the debate when it returns from recess later this month.

Mexico City Strategies

At the abortion conference, Mexico City activists also described the strategies that helped them legalize abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy. Formerly the city only permitted abortion in cases of rape, severe fetal malformation or to save the woman’s life.

Maria Consuelo Mejia, director of Catholics for the Right to Decide Mexico, said that of various messages they disseminated in the media, the ideas of social justice and freedom of conscience were the ones that worked best.

She said the Catholic Church, by contrast, promoted a climate of “terrorism, harassment” by threatening lawmakers with excommunication, and supporting anti-choice groups such as the Mexican National Guard, which called for the death penalty for abortion supporters.

Mejia said they stressed that unsafe abortion hit poor women harder since wealthier women can travel to obtain a safe abortion.

Mejia recommended their strategies to activists in other Catholic-majority countries such as Brazil, where abortion is currently only legal in cases of rape and incest and Nicaragua, which in October of 2006 passed a blanket ban criminalizing abortion in all circumstances including in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the woman.

Brazil’s presumably iron-clad anti-abortion sentiment is showing some cracks. Earlier this year President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his health minister, Jose Gomes Temporao, described it as a public health issue–versus a moral one–and activists are waiting for a vote on a bill proposed in 1991 that decriminalizes abortion, which is currently only legal in cases of rape or to save the life of the pregnant woman. A public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 21.

A petition calling on governments and international donors to increase access to comprehensive reproductive health care and safe abortion services was signed by approximately 500 conference delegates.

Anna Louie Sussman is a journalist based in London.

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