One year ago on this day the Colombian Constitutional Court completely decriminalized abortion up to 24 weeks. This was a landmark ruling and the first of its kind in Latin America and the Caribbean. It should mean that women and pregnant people are now able to legally access an abortion through their health provider in any circumstances.
But those of us who have been working on abortion for many years, know that abortion legality is not sufficient in guaranteeing access.
Particularly in a country like Colombia, where conservative and religious beliefs and values, as well as myths about abortion and sexual health prevail. Despite the fact that abortion should now be accessible on request up to 24 weeks, significant barriers still exist at the healthcare level. Women and pregnant people are often asked to meet unnecessary requirements. Sometimes they are told that providers at that healthcare facility are conscientious objectors and will not treat them. Sometimes health insurance authorisation is delayed by days, if not weeks.
In some extreme cases, women continue to be told that abortion is not legal and/or that they are committing a sin.
For this reason, the Ministry of Health resolution on abortion which came out in January 2023 is almost as important a win for women and pregnant people as last year’s Constitutional Court ruling.
Work on the resolution had begun some time before the 2022 court ruling with strong input from feminist organisations and abortion providers. This is clear in the progressive and inclusive language as well as the detail provided regarding the role that all health sector actors should play in abortion care. It leaves no room for doubt that health care providers (both public and private) are legally responsible for ensuring that women and pregnant people are informed of their right to abortion and have immediate and free access when necessary.
The resolution details care for minors (they must have complete autonomy in their decision-making) and people with physical and cognitive disabilities (when possible, they must be provided with all the relevant support to make an autonomous decision). It highlights that an abortion is considered urgent care and should be provided immediately and free of charge, and only in extreme cases should take up to five days. It also details care for migrants, including those who have not been able to formalize their residency in Colombia. Through the use of numerous examples, it explicitly lays out the practices that are prohibited for health care professionals and providers, in an attempt to reduce such barriers in care. Finally, a technical annex to the resolution also provides detail on abortion methods according to gestational age.
For feminist organisations and abortion providers like Si Mujer, the resolution will become an important advocacy and teaching tool in our education and accompaniment work.
We will be able to refer back to it when witnessing barriers to abortion access, and we will use it in community workshops when educating on the abortion pathway and our rights.
There is still a long way to go to guarantee abortion access for women and pregnant people of all ages, ethnicities, and across socioeconomic class and regions in a country as diverse as Colombia. Not least, because of the continuous work that is needed in overcoming individual and social barriers to abortion.
But certainly, this resolution is a huge win for Colombia and we hope can be a helpful and inspiring model for abortion advocates elsewhere.
By Alexandra Lamb Guevara, Programmes Director at Fundación Si Mujer.