Colombia becomes 4th Latin American country to decriminalize abortion

Colombia's Constitutional Court issued an order on Monday decriminalizing abortion until the 24th week of pregnancy, making the country the fourth in Latin America to expand access to the procedure.

Argentina, Uruguay and Cuba also allow abortions without restrictions

Pro-choice activists celebrate after Colombia's Constitutional Court approved the decriminalization of abortion, lifting all limitations on the procedure until the 24th week of pregnancy, in Bogota on Monday. (Fernando Vergara/The Associated Press)

Colombia has become the latest country in Latin America to expand access to abortion, as its Constitutional Court voted on Monday to legalize the procedure until the 24th week of pregnancy.

The decision by the tribunal of nine judges fell short of the expectations of pro-choice groups that had been pushing for abortion to be completely decriminalized in Colombia.

But it was nevertheless described as a historic event by women's rights groups, which estimate 400,000 women get clandestine abortions in the country each year.

Before the ruling, Colombia allowed abortions only when a woman's life was in danger, a fetus had malformations or a pregnancy resulted from rape.

Now women in Colombia will be able to get abortions until the 24th week of their pregnancy without having to provide any justification. After the 24th week, abortion will still be restricted to women whose health is in danger.

"We were trying to get the complete decriminalization of abortion … but this is still a historic step," said Cristina Rosero, a lawyer for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, an advocacy group that was one of five organizations that filed a lawsuit in 2020 to get the high court to review Colombia's abortions laws.

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The lawsuit argued that restrictions on abortion discriminated against women from low income areas for whom it was harder to get legal abortions, because they had less access to doctors, lawyers or psychologists who could help them to prove that carrying out pregnancies would put their health at risk.

Rosero said the changes made to Colombian law will now make it easier for people of lower income levels to access safe abortions.

"Our challenge now is to ensure that this ruling is implemented," she said.

Elsewhere in Latin America, Argentina, Uruguay and Cuba also allow abortions without restrictions.

Latin America is also a region where some countries prohibit the termination of pregnancy without exception, such as in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

An anti-abortion activist holds a doll during a protest outside the Constitutional Court, ahead of the decision. (Fernando Vergara/The Associated Press)

In Colombia, where a majority of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, abortion has long been a controversial issue. Judges met several times to review the lawsuit filed by women's rights groups without voting on it. Meanwhile pro-choice groups waving green flags, faced off against anti-abortion protesters dressed in blue.

Jonathan Silva, an activist for the anti-abortion group United for Life, said he was surprised by Monday's decision. "We don't understand how this happened," he said. "But we will have to stage protests, and call on members of congress to regulate abortion."

A poll conducted last year in Colombia said that 25 per cent of people considered abortion a crime, while 42 per cent disagreed with that statement.

In Colombia, women who get illegal abortions can face up to three years in prison.