Yesterday was a monumental moment for the future of reproductive rights in Colombia. Five years after Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of abortion under three specific circumstances—rape, risk to the mother’s life or congenital malformation of the fetus—the fate of reproductive and sexual rights was on the cusp of change. This would have been a setback for all Colombians.
Instead, the Senate voted against a proposal to overrule the 2006 Constitutional Court decision allowing select abortions. If the Senate bill had passed, it would have prohibited all forms of abortion, and made the use of emergency contraceptives and in vitro fertilization illegal and subject to prosecution. Fortunately, with nine votes against the proposed bill and seven in favor, the status of abortion in Colombia remains the same. The bill did not have the support of Colombia’s inspector general, Alejandro Ordoñez, who despite efforts from the Liberal party, Polo Democratico and grassroots organizations to stop the voting, kept the pressure on.
Ordoñez, well known for his conservative values, devotion to Catholicism and opposition to the Court’s ruling in favor of abortion, already has four lawsuits against him that accuse the inspector general of not complying with the constitution when it comes to reproductive rights. Three of the legal actions were levied in defense of the secular state. The fourth was filed by more than 1,100 women who requested a public retraction of Ordoñez’s statements, accusing him of sharing inaccurate information about reproductive and sexual rights. For example, in one instance, he publicly said that the emergency contraceptive is an abortive procedure even though the World Health Organization has categorized it as a contraceptive only.
Before the vote, many feared that congressmen would vote for this bill because of moral believes and ideology and sheer political convenience and bureaucracy. As reported by the website La Silla Vacia, the decision to ban Senator Piedad Córdoba from office last year was a sign that the inspector general is not limited to probing and sanctioning members of Congress. It is also known that a position in opposition to the legalization of abortion will help to prevent disciplinary procedures from being carried out against a legislator.
Now that the anguish from the past days is over, we can look back at this as a reminder that the fight is not over. In 2008, Colombia had more than 400,000 abortions, and only 322 were practiced under legal procedures. This is the third major cause of maternal death in the country. The future of reproductive and sexual rights and the lives of millions of women cannot depend on a few political votes.
Colombia has already made positive strides in comparison to other countries in Latin America. Countries such as Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador penalize the practice of abortions under any circumstance. However, we are far away from having more liberal policies such as those in Cuba, where, since 1965, women can have abortions under any circumstance.
Yesterday’s vote is an indication that we have to do a better job to protect our women, and fight against efforts that seek to take those rights away.
*Alejandra Mejía Restrepo and Carolina Herrera Vargas are guest bloggers to AQ Online. Alejandra is director of public policy programs at Americas Society and Council of the Americas and Carolina is at the American Museum of Natural History.