Colombia is one of Latin America’s most progressive countries when it comes to abortion, despite ongoing resistance from the church and difficulties with doctors and hospitals refusing to perform abortions on moral grounds, says pro-choice advocate Monica Roa.
“We have advanced a lot. Many women had an abortion legally and therefore under responsible circumstances,” Roa, best known in Colombia for her efforts to legalize abortion, told Colombia Reports.
Abortion under certain specific circumstances was legalized in Colombia in 2006. Women who have been raped, are in life-threatening danger or whose unborn child may have serious deformaties are allowed to have abortions.
In spite of the great resistence against the law, Roa feels that her work advocating the right to abortion receives a lot of support. “Everybody criticized the Prosecutor General because of his opposition to abortion. Four years ago that might not have happened.”
Recently, a Colombian insurance company was fined for denying abortion to an underage rape victim. Family planning organization Profamilia said women in Colombia are humiliated both physically and emotionally. Despite reports like these, Roa remains optimistic about women’s progress and the abortion issue. “The glass is half full”, she declares. “When we get bad news we complain for two seconds and then we see what we can do.”
It has been a hard fight for the lawyer, who wanted abortion to be legalized in three cases: rape, risk to the mother’s life or a badly deformed baby. It took her from 2004 until 2006 before the Constitutional Court ruled that what she asked was constitutional. The ruling was a great step forward for women who had been fighting for a more liberal law.
However, Roa’s pro-choice quest faced serious opposition. “Since 2005 we have received anonymous threats,” the lawyer says.
People don’t trust women
“It is the Church and the patriarchal society that reject abortion”, Monica Roa thinks. “Women are not free to decide about their body and their projects in life.There is fear for the freedom of the woman as far as birth control is concerned. But the woman can take responsible decisions. In case of rape the woman only has to report the crime in order to make the abortion legal. So people don’t trust women. They think they will lie. But they don’t take into account that many women who have been raped are afraid to say it.”
The biggest problem is in applying the law. Roa: “It’s the social security companies and the hospitals and clinics that don’t want to attend to the women. They do have the obligation however. The hospital or clinic cannot legally say it is morally impeded, which often happens. Only individual doctors can and so the hospital in its management of personnel has to see to it that there are doctors available. The insurance company has to know which institution is able to do it and send the patient to that institution.”
The most vivid case of how the law is not always applied is that of a young girl in Cúcuta, who was 13 when she was raped by a neighbor. Her mother tried everything to have the abortion carried out. Insurance company Coomeva and the hospital denied help. “The mother filed a lawsuit, which was denied. She appealed and it was denied again. Then she asked for a review by the Constitutional Court and the Court concluded that all rights of the girl had been violated.”
It all took so long that the girl had to give birth. “She got gonorrhea because of the rape”, Roa explains. “Her son was given in adoption. She tried to commit suicide three times. She is 15 now and I understood she had a semi-heart attack lately.” The man who raped her has been sentenced to 14 years of prison. “He sends people to harrass and threaten the mother and daughter”, Roa says. “Because of the fine the social security company has to pay they can move to another town now and they are about to do that. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has demanded protective measures and the physical and psychological support of the girl.”
The problem, Monica Roa states, is that it’s the poor people who face this kind of problem. “The rich go to a private clinic or know a doctor who can do it.” The girl and her mother are “very poor people”, she states. “But it is incredible how the mother has been working tirelessly to get justice. Usually these women are scared off at the first obstacle and keep silent. It is said that if men got pregnant, abortion would be a commandment. But it is even better to say ‘If elite women died because they couldn’t have an abortion, then it would have been legal for a long time’.”
Nonetheless Roa thinks that there has been a lot of progress, even thought there are no statistics available of women who have had legal abortions. “Hospitals give no numbers or wrong numbers. It could be because they are afraid of being stigmatized. But statistics in health care have always been a problem.”
Internationally speaking, Colombia has advanced a lot because of its abortion law, says Roa. “Colombia was one of the few countries where abortion was completely forbidden. Now we are world leaders. The Court’s sentence is very good, because it speaks of social justice. It says the woman is not a reproductive machine. Many other countries are studying the sentence now, because many countries have a law in which there are exceptions to the abortion ban, but the law isn’t applied. So women don’t know what to do and where to go.”