On February 21, 2022, the Constitutional Court of Colombia voted five to four (including three women) to decriminalize abortion up to the 24th week of pregnancy. Since 2006 (previously totally forbidden), as in most Latin American countries, abortion was only allowed in cases of rape, endangerment of the mother’s life and non-viable fetus. While this decision is undoubtedly a major step forward for the feminist movement, the hardest part is yet to come.
This makes Colombia, along with the United Kingdom, one of the countries in the world with the longest delay in claiming voluntary abortion (IVG). In most other countries, with the notable exception of the Netherlands (22 weeks) and Sweden (18 weeks), abortion, when legal, is restricted to the first trimester of pregnancy. In Belgium, a 2019 bill to fully decriminalize abortion and extend gestational weeks from 12 to 18 weeks has been put on hold to avoid angering one of its members, the CD&V [chrétiens-démocrates flamands]the governing coalition.
September 28 has become International Abortion Rights Day. The situation at the global level is mixed. Abortion is still outright banned in about fifteen countries. However, the overall picture of backward Southern versus progressive West needs to be corrected. In fact, throughout Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia, abortion is banned or restricted to certain cases (rape, non-viable fetus, risks to the mother and more rarely economic reasons). But in South Africa it has been legal since 1996, while in Ireland it only became legal in 2019, and abortion is very accessible in China while it is completely banned in Malta.
Most importantly, far from being part of an ascending and continuous line, abortion rights are facing headwinds. For example, a ruling by Poland’s Constitutional Court in 2020 further curtailed already severely limited access to abortion, while in November 2021 Benin’s parliament passed a law legalizing abortion in a variety of circumstances. The Polish case is part of a global trend. Indeed, in recent years, under pressure from reactionary right-wing and religious institutions, abortion rights have been pressured, even curtailed, as in several North American states, Slovakia, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
In response to the “Green Wave”
Colombia is the fifth country on the continent – alongside Uruguay, Guyana, Argentina and Cuba, which occupies a special position since abortion has been decriminalized there since 1965 – to allow voluntary termination of pregnancy. Abortion is also legal in Mexico City and three Mexican states. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s completely banned in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. The Colombian Constitutional Court’s decision is part of a national and continental wave.
After a request from feminist organizations, which was spread through mobilizations on the streets, the constitutional court had to position itself. And the country to open the eyes to the situation of women. More than one in five abortions involves minors, accounting for 24% of those convicted. However, lockdown restrictions imposed by the pandemic have exacerbated the vulnerability of minors: the number of children born to girls under the age of 14 in Colombia between October and December 2021 increased by almost a third compared to the same period in 2020.
If the feminist movement celebrated this victory properly, it reaffirmed that the most difficult thing remains to be done: to ensure the application of the law, to develop an effective (counter)pedagogy and to guarantee access to abortion. In addition to the still very strong stigmatization, resistance from politics – President Ivan Duque has once again spoken out against decriminalization – and from medical circles (first source of denunciation) is a major obstacle. And in Colombia, as elsewhere on the continent, it is Access to abortion for poor, rural and Afro-descendant women is more restricted and criminalization more severe. In addition, the Constitutional Court called on parliamentarians to pass laws defending women’s rights.
But this legal advance is consistent with the “green wave” — the color of the scarves waved by feminists — that has rocked Latin America in recent years. The change in Colombia actually comes just over a year after Argentina’s historic assembly voted to authorize abortion. Thousands of women surrounded the parliamentary districts during the debates and the strong mobilization resonated across the country’s borders. A few months later, in September 2021, the Mexican Supreme Court declared the criminalization of abortion unconstitutional, paving the way for legislative changes. So many signs that things are changing in Latin America?
Return to the Left and Feminist Possibilities
The decision of the Colombian Constitutional Court is all the more emblematic because in a traditionally far-right country and at a crucial moment, in the middle of the electoral campaign, just a few weeks before the general elections (which took place on March 13) and presidential elections (May 29), where left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro is announced as the winner. If so, a new post-neoliberal shift would become clearer, after Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Honduras and with the prospect of Lula da Silva – also topping the polls – returning to power. in Brazil, in October 2022.
Will this possible return to the left mean advances in access to abortion? Nothing is less certain given past experience of the progressive turn taken by much of South America at the beginning of this millennium. Indeed, real advances in tackling poverty and inequality and in accessing basic social services, which have had a direct impact on social gender relations, have not led to major changes in relation to sexual and reproductive rights. Uruguay was the only country to legalize abortion under Pepe Mujica’s government in 2012.
The cumulative sociological weight of the Catholic and Evangelical churches, as well as right-wing opposition, are the main reasons for this. Sexuality and abortion issues polarize and are systematically exploited by these currents, which have become stronger in recent years. We naturally think of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, but the new (since April 2021) Ecuadorian president, the ex-banker loyal to Opus Dei Guillermo Lasso, is representative of this mixture of political right and conservative church. The latter is at the top of the third country on the continent with the highest rate of pregnant girls and adolescents. He warned that he would veto a recent Assembly bill authorizing abortion in rape cases.
Evo Morales in Bolivia, 2018, Lula and Dilma Roussef in Brazil, before him, backed down and gave in to the conservative offensive to make abortion more accessible. But the success of this offensive can also be explained by the conformation of this Latin American left. Former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, a vehement opponent of abortion, summed up their ambivalence in a formula and described himself as “economically and socially radical, but morally conservative”. In October 2013, for example, he threatened to resign if parliamentarians from his own party follow suit with a bill that expands the possibilities for legal abortions. The proposal was withdrawn.
The new Peruvian President Pedro Castillo is also representative of this ambivalence.
But even if they don’t come from such a cultural background, the Latin American governing left makes sexual and reproductive rights, especially abortion, a side issue that doesn’t deserve to be jeopardized by “serious” and “strategic” reforms of their programs. The class struggle ends at the gates of the home and “private” (as it seems to end at the cusp of the commodity markets). And the stubbornness of a certain left in defending Daniel Ortega from all weathers in Nicaragua when, after returning to power in 2006 to reaffirm his alliance with the Catholic Church, he completely banned abortion, clouds the ability to be critical analysis a bit more.
Even the “new” generation on the left is no longer committed to these issues. Thus, on the occasion of the decision of the Constitutional Court, Gustavo Petro congratulated the women on their triumph. However, he maintains an ambiguous stance – he upholds a “zero abortion” ideal – and his party is divided on the issue. For her part, Xiomara Castro, the President of Honduras, said she supports access to abortion in cases of rape that endanger the health of the mother and the non-viable fetus. But how far will his resolve go in the face of Congress and a criminalization of abortion armored by a new law in 2021?
Finally, if Gabriel Boric, the current Chilean President and former leader of the student movement – in which many women participated – is more willing to lead this fight, it is significant that he was not the origin of the new bill. Indeed, as part of the work for the Constituent Assembly, a popular initiative was adopted to “recognize and guarantee to all human beings their sexual and reproductive rights, under conditions of equality and without discrimination, including the right to abortion without interference from any third party, institution or representative of the state “.
If anything is indeed changing on the continent, which is home to 14 of the 25 countries with the world’s highest rates of feminicide, it is primarily thanks to the rise in power of feminist movements. These have, to use the words of the philosopher Jacques Rancière, caused another “sharing of the sensitive”. In this way they have managed to make the situation visible, to make abortion (and sexual and reproductive rights) an element of public debate and a political issue related primarily to rights and public health issues and not on moral or religious opinion.
This change was accompanied by a reconfiguration of actors and actresses. Women have claimed to be subjects of rights rather than objects of action, and have refused to give medical, religious, and political institutions — even if they are allies — the task of saying what is good or bad, primary or secondary, for them , is strategic or not. Ultimately, the changes in Latin America depend less on the political constellations in power than on the pressure of feminist movements.