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COLOMBIA: Magistrates Excommunicated for Partially Lifting Abortion Ban

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTÁ, May 11 2006 (IPS) - Twenty-seven years after Congresswoman Consuelo Lleras unsuccessfully submitted a bill to legalise abortion in Colombia, the country’s Constitutional Court has recognised the right to terminate a pregnancy in case of rape, a threat to the woman’s life or health, or if the foetus has a deformity that would prevent survival outside the womb.

These were the same three conditions proposed by Lleras. The ruling also includes cases of “non-consensual artificial insemination or transfer of fertilised ova, or incest.”

Women will have to present a medical certificate when seeking health-related abortions, or file a police report, in the case of rape.

But the response from Colombia’s Catholic Church was immediate. In a country where even the Marxist guerrillas fighting a civil war for the past four decades fear excommunication, Cardinal Pedro Rubiano, president of the Bishops’ Conference, announced that fate Thursday for the five Constitutional Court magistrates who voted in favour of the verdict, including the Court’s only female judge.

Three others voted against the ruling, while former ombudsman and the president of the Court, Jaime Córdoba, recused himself as he had taken part in drafting the current penal code.

“We are magistrates of a Court in a secular country,” responded the vice president of the Court, Rodrigo Escobar, in an interview with a local radio station.

“We have scored a major victory for society!” exclaimed Marta González triumphantly Wednesday night, in lawyer Mónica Roa’s office in Bogotá. In April 2005 Roa filed the suit to challenge the clauses and articles in Colombian law that establish prison sentences without exception for women who have had an abortion.

Surrounded by women’s rights activists who rushed to Roa’s headquarters to celebrate the ruling, González watched herself on TV in an interview she had just given to Yamid Amat, director of Colombia’s CMI news programme.

In it, González, who is raising her four daughters – aged 22 months, six, seven and 17 – on her own, told her story.

When she was two months pregnant with her youngest daughter, the doctors found a two-cm cancerous tumour in her uterus. The cancer treatment would have ended the pregnancy, and Colombian law put the baby’s life first.

González, who lives in a poor neighbourhood in the central Colombian city of Pereira, wanted to get a clandestine abortion, to which 350,000 to 400,000 women in this South American country of 44 million resort every year, according to unofficial estimates. However, as her pregnancy was already logged in the health system she could have ended up in prison, or the clinic which performed the abortion could have lost its licence.

Thirty-four weeks later, the tumour had grown to eight centimetres. Doctors have informed her that “nothing can be done” now. The cancer has metastasised and she has perhaps only months to live. They have referred her to palliative care, which includes psychological support and pain killers.

But her faith in God remains strong, and she believes it can move mountains. She trusts that God will decide how long she will be able to care for her four daughters. When she is gone, her oldest will support the younger three.

González makes a living baking arepas (a traditional Colombian corn pancake), cleans homes and on Sundays waits tables in a hotel.

Now, she is hoping that a 23-year-old friend who is two months pregnant, has one son and the same kind of cancer, will be allowed to have an abortion.

In Colombia, 30 percent of women who have been pregnant have had an abortion, and the rate rises to 44 percent in women under 19, according to the Research Centre for Social Dynamics at the Universidad Externado de Colombia.

Colombia’s Ministry of Social Protection lists abortion as the number three cause of maternal mortality, accounting for 17 percent of such deaths. But low-income women are more likely to lose their lives during abortions performed in unsanitary conditions and at the hands of people with no medical training.

Colombia, along with the rest of the international community, committed to reducing by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio by 2015 when it assumed the U.N. Millennium Development Goals in September 2000.

The state does not keep statistics on how many women, such as González, could have been saved had they been permitted to abort in order to receive treatment. When González dies, cancer will be recorded as the official cause.

Among South American countries, Colombia was, until Wednesday, “one of the most restrictive, along with Chile and El Salvador, which ban all abortions without exception,” Roa told IPS. The lawyer is a member of Women’s Link Worldwide, a fledgling organisation with headquarters in Madrid and Colombia.

“The activists who came before us were very successful in getting women’s rights recognised in international treaties and constitutions, but we believed we needed to take the next step: to work with judges – the people in charge of applying these rights to women’s everyday lives.” she explained. “This is why we are so interested in bringing several cases before the court.”

Roa firmly believes that the Constitutional Court does not let itself be swayed by popular opinion, but rather rules according to “legally relevant” arguments, such as those she presented.

“The constitutional arguments were extremely clear right from the beginning,” she emphasised.

However, “The Court feels more comfortable making a decision” that is supported by opinion polls. According to such surveys, an average of 54 percent of Colombians currently favours decriminalisation under the cited circumstances.

The legal proceedings, which took just over one year from the time Roa filed the case before the Constitutional Court, received support from Colombia’s Office of the Public Prosecutor, the Ombudsperson’s Office and the National Academy of Medicine.

In May 2005, 85 percent of opinion poll respondents were against any kind of decriminalisation in cases of abortion.

“This shift in Colombian public opinion shows that the messages got though,” noted Roa. “We were able to separate the moral debate from the public health and human-rights debate that we wanted to put forward.”

She was referring to the shift from an argument based on foetal rights and Catholic Church morals to one that showed that back-alley abortions are a major public health issue.

But it was not easy. Since the mid 1970s, the debate has been religious-based “and the source for journalists was always the monsignor of the day. Moving away from that was, for the media, not hard, but it was definitely a conscious action. It was all part of our strategy,” she explained.

A year ago, journalists “would go to the monsignor for quotes. But over time, they did so less and less frequently,” said Roa.

Before the parliamentary elections in March, church authorities had counselled parishioners to vote against politicians who promoted abortion rights.

“The Church is within its rights to influence the private Catholic sphere, but the constitutional challenge pertains to the public sphere, where the state is obligated to guarantee that each and every citizen has access to and can exercise his or her rights,” said Roa at the time, writing to IPS .

The lawyer also has called illegal a campaign promoted in religious-based schools, in which children as young as six or seven are pressured to send letters and drawings to the Constitutional Court to protest “mothers who want to kill their babies.”

What is the next step? “Making sure that the Court’s decision doesn’t just remain on paper. Ensuring that the Ministry of Social Protection upholds its commitment to the issue and passes laws that truly guarantee women’s access to the service,” said Roa.

Also, making sure “That women know what to do, that the obligations are clear for the various actors involved in the process (…) that the game rules are clear, so that the Court’s decision truly has a positive effect on the lives of women,” she added.

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