What Colombia’s Legalization of Abortion Means for Latin America

In Brief

What Colombia’s Legalization of Abortion Means for Latin America

Latin America has historically had some of the world’s most restrictive abortion policies, but Colombia’s easing of rules signals a growing wave of change.

Colombia is the latest Latin American country to loosen restrictions on abortion in what has become known as the region’s “green wave.” Advocates say the movement promises to resolve health inequalities and expand women’s rights, but opponents say it goes too far.

What happened in Colombia?

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On February 21, Colombia’s highest court ruled that abortion is no longer a crime before the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy. The decision was the culmination of a lawsuit filed by Causa Justa, an umbrella group representing various women’s health and reproductive rights organizations. It argued that the criminalization of abortion discriminates against women.

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Previously, a woman could only get an abortion under three circumstances: if the pregnancy was a result of rape, if the fetus was deformed, or when the woman’s life was threatened. (An abortion that doesn’t meet any of these criteria is still a criminal offense after twenty-four weeks of pregnancy.) Otherwise, both patient and doctor could be sentenced to up to fifty-four months in prison. Since 1998, there have been some 5,500 investigations into alleged illegal abortions and 250 women handed criminal sentences.

Women wearing green bandanas demonstrate in front of Colombia’s constitutional court in support of removing abortion from the penal code.
Women demonstrate in front of Colombia’s constitutional court in support of removing abortion from the penal code. Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters

Additionally, the court instructed Congress to create a new law to expand access to contraceptives, sexual education, and other reproductive health services.

How does this fit into regional trends? 

Currently, only six Latin American countries have made it legal to get an abortion on request. These include Cuba, starting in the 1960s, and Uruguay, since 2012. Nine countries, mostly in Central America and the Caribbean, prohibit the practice altogether. Most other countries fall in the middle, permitting abortions under certain circumstances, such as pregnancy due to rape or incest. Advocates for women’s reproductive rights say such restrictions have made abortion a dangerous procedure: the Guttmacher Institute reports [PDF] that only one in four abortions in the region meets the World Health Organization’s standards for medical safety and that around 760,000 women are treated annually for resulting complications.

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The current movement can be traced back to the 2015 Ni Una Menos (Not One Woman Less) protests in Argentina. These demonstrations started as a way to hold the government accountable for the country’s high rates of femicide but evolved to encompass broader demands. In 2018, tens of thousands of women wearing green took to the streets to call for legalizing abortion, and protests continued until 2020, when Argentine lawmakers voted to do so.

Argentina’s ruling spurred a “green wave” throughout the region. Since then, Mexico’s supreme court ruled that criminalizing abortion is unconstitutional, Ecuador’s legislature made abortion legal in cases of rape, and Chilean lawmakers began seeking to guarantee women’s reproductive rights through the country’s new constitution. In Colombia, activists also wore green in the weeks leading up to the court’s decision. “We now know that there’s a bigger and more connected movement around abortion in Latin America,” says Cristina Rosero, a lawyer and spokesperson for Causa Justa.

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However, a few countries have moved in the opposite direction: last year, Honduras embedded its absolute abortion ban into its constitution.

What is the debate around abortion rights?

Religion plays a prominent role in the debate throughout Latin America, where churches are among the most trusted institutions, according to public polling. The Catholic Church and fast-growing Evangelical movement teach that life begins at conception and abortion in all cases is a moral evil. Religiously conservative politicians, including Colombian President Ivan Duque and former President Alvaro Uribe, have thus protested the new ruling.

But supporters say the green wave is improving women’s health and helping to break down stigmas around abortion. Rosero highlights the importance of public dialogue. “We had a strategy to bring information, to talk about this openly, to basically eliminate some myths and prejudices around this topic,” she says. On some occasions, advocates have embraced religion as a platform for expanding reproductive rights. For example, Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (Catholics for Choice) in Colombia played a significant role in the push for decriminalization.

Supporters further argue that decriminalization won’t increase the number of abortions but will instead help women avoid clandestine procedures that can be dangerous, pointing to data indicating a decrease in abortions in countries with fewer restrictions. Global human rights bodies maintain that denying women access to abortion is a violation of their rights [PDF] to health and privacy.

What comes next?

Attempts to reverse the ruling in Colombia have few paths forward. Legislative efforts would likely be considered unconstitutional by the high court, and the court would have to review any referendum before it could take place.

Pushback could come from other countries, however. Referring to Argentina’s 2020 decision, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro vowed that he would never allow such a law to pass. And while abortion rights are steadily expanding worldwide, the debate is becoming similarly heated in many places, including the United States

Antonio Barreras Lozano is an editorial intern at CFR. Will Merrow helped create the map for this In Brief.

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