Women’s reproductive rights under threat in Colombia

Hanna Hindstrom – WNN Features

Woman helping pregnant woman in Colombia.
Prenatal care in rural Colombia in 1981. Image: UNICEF/ UN Photo

(WNN) Buga, COLOMBIA: At 11 years old, Nina was raped by her stepfather. Traumatised and pregnant, she sought an abortion. But every doctor she met claimed conscientious objection and refused. She was forced to travel 35 miles to another city, where she eventually tracked down an obstetrician willing to help.

She was one of the lucky ones.

Despite a landmark ruling five years ago – when Colombia’s Constitutional Court decriminalised abortion in cases of rape, foetal abnormality or to save the mother’s life – less than 0.5 percent of procedures are carried out legally each year. Many doctors simply turn girls like Nina away.

There is endemic confusion about the status of the law, especially the rules for conscientious objection, coupled with a widespread reluctance to obey it. Unsafe abortion remains the third leading cause of maternal deaths in a country where, according to government figures, over 300,000 take place each year.

Upon its inception the law has been the target of an aggressive anti-choice campaign, led by conservative political forces and supported by the

Catholic Church. These forces are now threatening to unravel the little progress made.

Since coming into office in 2009, the Procurador-General, Alejandro

Ordonez – the official appointed to protect the constitution and promote human rights – has led a vociferous campaign to dismantle the legislation.

“He hasn’t hidden his intent to overturn the law,” says Monica Roa, the human rights lawyer and Program Director at Women’s Link Worldwide, who led the campaign to reverse the abortion ban. “He has been filing requests to nullify the decisions of the Constitutional Court, including the legal framework for conscientious objection.”

Two years ago he announced that the State Council – another judicial body – had suspended the decree overseeing the provision of abortions. The result has been a legal vacuum.

“Although the Court said no regulation was needed for women to be able to access legal abortion services, the suspension of the decree leaves health care providers and other authorities with no specific guidelines to provide the service, or to oversee the fulfillment of the decision,” explains Arango.

The law explicates that all hospitals must employ doctors willing to perform the procedure or provide a direct referral to someone who is. Institutions, judicial representatives or public officials cannot practice conscientious objection. But without any guidelines in place the law is difficult to implement.

Ordonez has publicly backed the position of the Catholic Church, who immediately after the 2006 decision instructed all hospitals, doctors and judges to ignore the ruling and threatened to excommunicate those who didn’t.

“This is particularly problematic because the health system is administered to a great deal by the church,” adds Arango. “Many of the hospitals in rural areas and even in big cities are run by them.”

Earlier this year, Ordonez petitioned the Ministry of Health in an attempt to exclude the abortion-inducing drug misoprostol from the public health plan. He falsely claimed that the World Organization considered it dangerous. “They were so shamelessly manipulating the information, and because they have this public profile everything they say is very much publicised,” says Roa.

Now he has formed an alliance with the Conservative Party and the Church in a bid to challenge the 2006 decision through Congress. On 3 August 2011, the leader of the Conservative Party, José Darío Salazar, proposed a 14-word amendment to the Constitution that affirms the right of life from the point of conception. If approved, a total abortion ban will be reinforced.

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