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Colombia has approved more liberal abortion laws, sparking backlash

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As some states in the U.S. have restricted access to abortion, several Latin American countries have moved in the opposite direction. The latest was Colombia, where the Constitutional Court in February approved some of the most liberal abortion laws in the Americas. Reporter John Otis retraces the country's course on this issue. And just a note - this story begins with some disturbing imagery.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Colombia used to be a socially conservative country with an influential Catholic church and a total ban on abortion. But that didn't stop women from interrupting their pregnancies in often dangerous ways.

LAURA GIL: In the '70s, abortion was the first cause of maternal mortality.

OTIS: That's Dr. Laura Gil, a Colombian gynecologist and abortion rights activist.

GIL: Most of the abortions were carried out with traumatic procedures - could be people that had no training at all and would try with knitting needles. I can remember women with their internal organs totally destroyed and handcuffed to their beds and being interrogated by the police.

OTIS: But a number of things have changed over the years. As Colombia became a more urban and educated society, church influence waned. Colombia's long-running guerrilla war was also a factor. Partly to convince left-wing guerrillas to disarm and take part in legal politics, Colombian lawmakers in 1991 agreed to write a new, more progressive constitution. So says Arlene Tickner, an international relations professor at Rosario University in Bogota.

ARLENE TICKNER: The search for adequate mechanisms for building peace was a very important factor in all of this.

OTIS: Although the war continued, the new constitution strengthened individual rights and laid the groundwork for landmark court decisions legalizing euthanasia, gay marriage and eventually abortion. In 2006, the Constitutional Court decriminalized abortion in cases of rape, fetal malformation and when the woman's health is in danger. As the procedure became more common, and as deaths from illegal abortions diminished, polls showed more and more Colombians supporting some form of abortion rights. Then came Latin America's so-called green wave of demonstrations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting, unintelligible).

OTIS: They started in Argentina when activists like these, wearing green scarves, took to the streets of Buenos Aires to pressure lawmakers into legalizing abortion. In 2020, Argentina's Congress voted to do just that. Last year, Mexico's Supreme Court ruled that criminal penalties for abortion are unconstitutional. All of this fed the push to broaden access to abortion in Colombia, says Mariana Ardila, managing attorney in Colombia for the rights group Women's Link Worldwide.

MARIANA ARDILA: The victories of one country inspire other countries. We share strategies. We talk to each other. We learn from each other.

OTIS: One recommendation, she said, was to use familiar faces to destigmatize abortion. The result was this widely circulated video.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In it, Colombian TV and film stars point out that women from all walks of life seek abortions, whether or not it's a crime. Finally, on February 21, Colombia's Constitutional Court legalized abortion during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. Ardila calls the ruling a milestone.

ARDILA: Colombia now is the country with the most progressive abortion laws in Latin America and the Caribbean and is top in the Americas. Only Canada is better.

OTIS: However, the narrow 5-4 decision has provoked a backlash, with anti-abortion groups now marching in the streets. Critics, like Colombian President Ivan Duque, are outraged that abortion will be allowed for up to six months of pregnancy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT IVAN DUQUE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Five people cannot tell an entire nation something so atrocious - that a life can be cut off at six months, Duque told reporters. Even so, Gil, the gynecologist, predicts the green wave will spread farther across Latin America, where in most countries abortion remains illegal under most circumstances.

GIL: This will ultimately lead to a wider legislation, like the one that we got. It goes in line with the international recommendations, so it's an example for the rest of the region.

OTIS: The latest country to take up the issue is Chile. There, a special assembly is writing a new constitution that is expected to include abortion rights.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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