Abortion is a key issue in Colombian elections

The recent lifting of the nation's abortion ban has brought women's health issues into the political mainstream.


Sarah Goldstein
May 26, 2006 7:03PM (UTC)

Women's eNews reports that abortion rights have gained unprecedented traction in Colombia's upcoming presidential elections since the partial legalization of the procedure on May 10 in cases of rape, of incest or where the woman's life is in danger. The largely Roman Catholic country, which has suffered armed conflict for the better half of the past century, was one of three Latin American countries -- with Chile and El Salvador -- that prohibited all abortions. (Thanks for picking up Colombia's slack, South Dakota.)

The historic decision allowing exceptions for the life of the woman was brought about by Monica Roa, a 30-year-old Colombian lawyer working with the Madrid-based Women's Link Worldwide. Roa brought a case to the Constitutional Court, Colombia's highest court, arguing that "the prohibition of abortion even in cases when a pregnancy posed a risk to the mother's life denied women of their basic right to health." Although the court dismissed her initial legal challenge on technical grounds, Roa immediately submitted a new challenge, and after 13 months of consideration, the court reached a 5-3 decision partially lifting the ban. The most remarkable thing about the court's decision is that it was made effective immediately rather than the usual procedure of "passing their decision on to Congress for legislators' to debate," eNews reports.

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The court's urgency may be a result of the fact that abortion is the No. 3 cause of maternal mortality in the country -- responsible for 17 percent of such deaths. According to Colombia's Social Welfare Ministry, an estimated 300,000 illegal abortions are performed in Colombia each year, 30 percent of which lead to complicatins that threaten women's health and lives.

Unfortunately, the frontrunner, incumbent Alvaro Uribe, is staunchly antiabortion and has greeted the change with stony silence. But Carlos Gaviria, the leftist candidate, has gained almost 11 percentage points during the campaign, possibly because of his outspoken support for women's health issues, including abortion rights. In a field of five candidates, Gaviria now has 20 percent support to Uribe's 61 percent. To win in Colombia a candidate must garner more than 50 percent of the vote. If Gaviria manages to do so, there will be a runoff in which Uribe may be forced to confront the abortion issue head-on.

Speaking to a crowd of 50,000 people in Bogotá, the capital, Gaviria's candidate for vice president, Patricia Lara, insisted, "We must be the owners of decisions about our bodies and autonomous enough not to tolerate abuse. I tell you what we want: our rights guaranteed and we want to exercise the half of power that corresponds to us." We're with you, sister.


Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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