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Women’s reproductive rights under threat in Colombia

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Summary of story from bikymasr, September 2, 2011

Despite a landmark ruling five years ago decriminalising abortion in Colombia in cases of rape, foetal abnormality or to save the mother’s life, fewer than 0.5 percent of procedures are carried out legally each year. Many doctors simply turn women 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 for maternal death in a country where, according to government figures, over 300,000 are carried out every year.

Since the ruling, 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 it.

“He hasn’t hidden his intent to overturn the law,” says Monica Roa, a human rights lawyer and program director at Women’s Link Worldwide, who led the campaign to reverse the abortion ban.

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

The law states 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 practise conscientious objection. But without any guidelines in place the law is difficult to implement.

Earlier this year, Ordonez petitioned the Ministry of Health in an attempt to exclude the abortion-inducing drug misoprostol from the public health plan.

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, Jose Dario 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.

In the absence of political will, it falls largely on women’s groups, like Women’s Links Worldwide and the Center for Reproductive Rights, to push for change.

Women’s Link Worldwide provides legal services to women and girls, who are deprived of their right to abortion. They are also active in the public debate.

Roa is positive that there has been a change at grassroots level: “People have made the abortion debate their own. It has been on the agenda these past five years continuously.”

But without vocal political support and effective public policy implementation, women’s reproductive rights will continue to be in serious danger.

The next few months will serve as a crucial test of just how far Colombia has come.

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