Martha Solay, a brave Colombian woman who told her pregnancy story in order to challenge Colombia’s restrictive abortion laws, died today (pdf). She died because “pro-life” abortion laws in her country meant that she could not terminate her pregnancy, despite the fact that she had uterine cancer and waiting to treat it would inevitably kill her.
Martha, a street vendor, spent her last months trying trying to raise enough money to make sure that her children could survive without her. Her four girls, ages 17, 6, 5, and 2, are now orphans.
Martha was brave enough to talk about her ordeal, and to use her story to promote abortion rights in Colombia. Women like Martha now have the right to terminate their pregnancies in that country. For her, it’s too late. But she has saved the lives of many, many women, even as she lost her own — and even as her own children are now without a home.
Women’s Link Worldwide is raising money to build a house for Martha’s little girls. From their email:
You can send your donations (with a note to Martha’s house) and/or buy the t-shirts used during the process in Colombia , now part of the National Museum, to:
United States: Women’s Link Worldwide, P.O. Box 415 Northfield , Vermont 05663 USA , or
Colombia : +57 (1) 345 1489, or
Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org asking for more information.
More background for Spanish-speakers, from Women’s Link Worldwide:
Hoy es uno de esos días en que nuestro trabajo tiene un sentido especial. Acabo de enterarme que Martha Solay, la mujer que contó su historia con valentía para apoyar la liberalización del aborto en Colombia murió. Murió por ser pobre, por ser mujer, porque la ligadura de trompas no impidió un nuevo embarazo, y porque teniendo cáncer no le permitieron interrumpir su embarazo para iniciar quimioterapia y salvar su propia vida. Dejó huérfanas y desamparadas a sus cuatro hijas de 17, 6, 5 y 2 años. Ellas no tienen dónde vivir, ayúdenos a construirles una vivienda.
The full AP article about Martha, written before her death, is below the fold.
Colombia Loosens Strict Abortion
By TOBY MUSE
Associated Press writer
4:29 PM PDT, May 12, 2006
BOGOTA, Colombia — The choice doctors presented to Martha Gonzalez when they told her she
had uterine cancer was almost unimaginably painful: Abort your fetus or die.
Colombian law at the time made the decision for her. Abortion was outlawed, no exceptions. She
gave birth, and the 34-year-old’s cancer is now inoperable.
This week, Colombia’s highest court ruled that abortions can be allowed in certain limited cases,
such as Gonzalez’s, if incest or rape is involved or if the fetus is so deformed that it would be
unable to live outside the mother’s womb.
Abortion rights activists are hoping that Colombia’s move toward less strict anti-abortion laws will
resonate through Latin America and spur continued liberalization in a region with some of the
world’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.
Gonzalez, a street vendor, is now spending her final months asking for donations for her four
children so she can die knowing they will be housed and educated.
The landmark ruling Wednesday overturned an absolute ban on abortion that set jail terms of up
to four years for women who have them. It leaves Chile and El Salvador as the only other Latin
American countries to maintain a total ban.
“This change in the law could have saved my life. I just wish this law existed before,” Gonzalez
Aside from Cuba, which offers abortions on demand for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, most
countries in this heavily Roman Catholic region allow abortion when a woman’s life is in danger
but deny it to pregnant victims of rape or incest, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights,
a New York-based advocacy group that supports abortion rights.
“Generally speaking in Latin America, the abortion laws remain restricted, but recently there’s
been a trend of victories for women’s rights in the region,” said Luisa Cabal, the center’s
international legal director, citing Mexico and Peru in particular.
In Mexico, authorities agreed in March of this year to pay $33,000 in damages to a woman who
had been denied an abortion following a rape. And in Peru, a U.N. agency ruled against the
government last year for failing to offer an abortion to a woman who was forced to continue
carrying a fatally deformed fetus.
“The decision established precedent in international law that denying access to legal abortion
violates women’s most basic human rights,” the Center for Reproductive Rights said.
Monica Roa, the abortion-rights lawyer who brought the case before Colombia’s Constitutional
Court, is hopeful Chile will follow Colombia’s lead, given the recent election of its first woman
president, Michelle Bachelet.
So far it seems unlikely. Bachelet has said that “the possibility of legalizing abortion is not part of
Studies indicate that some 160,000 illegal abortions are performed annually in Chile, with a
mortality rate for mothers of 30 percent.
“It can’t be that in this country, the poorest women have to go through these clandestine system
with no guarantee of their health and even worse are punished when they seek help for health
problems resulting from the illegal abortions,” said Rosario Guzman, a Chilean abortion rights
Such activists face stiff opposition elsewhere.
In Uruguay, President Tabare Vazquez has opposed any changes to the status quo, which
prohibits most abortions except in extreme cases.
It is a region where abortion rights activists clash with the deeply held beliefs of Roman Catholics,
whose church leaders consider any form of abortion to be a violation of life.
That’s why Roa said she made clear in her arguments that her support for abortion rights was a
question of human rights and not an attack on religious values.
“I always tell people that I didn’t file the complaint against the Vatican, but filed it as a legal motion
with the Constitutional Court,” she said. “We have always made clear that we are not against the
It will not be easy where the issue is heavily infused with religion. Roa knows the depths of
opposition abortion rights activists face.
She has received death threats and suspects abortion opponents of burglarizing her apartment
and making off with her computer.
She also worries that the rising rhetoric against her, including threats to excommunicate her,
could end tragically.
“When this religious fundamentalism talks of the devil taking over Colombia because of abortion
and then they call me the devil’s comrade, I worry that someone out there may decide to take it in
to their own hands to solve the problem,” she said.
AP correspondents Eva Vergara and Eduardo Gallardo in Chile, Sergio De Leon in Colombia,
Marcos Aleman in El Salvador and Raul Garces in Uruguay contributed to this story.
A very big thanks to Nancy for sending this on.
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