From The Economist, via my friend Sean (no link, sorry, just the text; all emphasis is mine):
Last bastions – Abortion in Latin America
Challenging Colombia’s restrictive abortion laws
A challenge to Colombia’s abortion laws could lead to wider liberalisation
ONLY a handful of countries continue to ban abortion totally, even when the mother’s life is in danger. Colombia is one of them. Earlier this year, its Congress increased the maximum sentence for violators to four and a half years in prison. Yet every year, an estimated 400,000 desperate women prefer to run the risk of jail and dangerous backstreet abortions rather than give birth to an unwanted, possibly severely handicapped baby, or a child resulting from rape or incest.
Illegal abortions are the third cause of maternal mortality in this predominantly Catholic country. Colombian women’s groups have long been campaigning for decriminalisation. United Nations bodies responsible for monitoring international human-rights conventions have lent the movement their weight, arguing that Colombia’s draconian laws violate a woman’s fundamental right to life and health. Public opinion is in favour of greater liberalisation when the mother’s life or health are at risk, or when the fetus is severely deformed. Yet repeated attempts in Congress to amend Colombia’s penal code have hitherto failed.
Now Monica Roa, a young Colombian lawyer working for Women’s Link Worldwide, a women’s rights group, is seeking to mount a legal challenge for the first time. In a suit filed in the Constitutional Court, she argues that a total ban on abortion is unconstitutional and violates Colombia’s international treaty obligations. In an effort not to offend Catholics too much, she is calling for abortion to be permitted in just three instances: if the mother’s life or health are at risk, if the fetus is severely malformed, or in the case of rape.
Ms Roa claims that the chances of passing a new abortion law are now higher than at any time in Colombia’s history. She would appear to have good grounds for optimism. The Constitutional Court has already ruled in other cases that international law supersedes domestic law. International groups, including Yale and Harvard Law Schools, have filed briefs in support of her claim. And both Colombia’s procurator-general’s office and the Ministry of Social Protection have admitted that illegal abortions present a serious public health problem.
But Ms Roa’s quest has brought her up against powerful enemies. In June, her office was broken into and two computers stolen, along with confidential files. She has now been assigned two bodyguards. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby group, has expressed concern about the safety of all those working on the case. Meanwhile, President Álvaro Uribe has rushed to assure the Catholic church that his signing of a treaty banning discrimination against women did not signify any support for abortion rights.
Ms Roa’s chief opponent is José Galat, elderly Catholic rector of the University of Greater Colombia. He maintains that abortion is akin to the massacres carried out by Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups. How can people complain about that violence if they allow mothers to assassinate the children in their wombs, he asks. He and his supporters have taken out gory advertisements featuring bloodied fetuses and have collected 2m signatures opposing any relaxation of the law.
Most countries of Central and Latin America-along with most of sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia-have extremely restrictive abortion laws, usually allowing the termination of a pregnancy only to save a woman’s life or protect her physical health. But Ms Roa believes there is now a momentum in the region toward greater liberalisation. A decision on the legality of Colombia’s laws is due by mid-December. It could help determine whether that momentum becomes unstoppable.
I wish Ms. Roa the best of luck. She’s up against a lot when her country doesn’t allow abortion even when having a child will kill the pregnant woman, when women who terminate pregnancies face almost five years in jail, and when everyone involved seems to be bending over backwards to suit Catholic church dogma. I hope she succeeds, and eventually goes further — it’s abhorent that 400,000 women are made into criminals for trying to control their family size. Harvard and Yale have filed amicus briefs on her side; perhaps I can single-handedly convince NYU to do the same.
- When is a fetus-person not a fetus-person? When it’s a lawsuit. by Caperton January 23, 2013
- UK Stands Up For Women’s Lives by Jill February 6, 2006
- Abortion Pill Safety by Jill April 14, 2006
- Crime, Pregnancy and Civil Rights by Jill October 26, 2006
- Catholic school cancels labor leader’s talk because of her pro-choice views by Jill March 9, 2008