March 01, 2011 - Six years ago Monica Roa brought a case before one of Colombia’s highest courts to get the country’s blanket ban on abortion partially overturned. Victory hardly was certain in a deeply Catholic nation where previous attempts to ease its prohibitive abortion law had failed.
But the lawyer managed to convince the constitutional court in Colombia—one of the few Latin American countries where abortion was completely forbidden--that the abortion law was unconstitutional because it violated Colombia’s own obligations to international human rights treaties that guarantee a woman's right to life and health. It was a new approach—and it worked. In a landmark decision, the court ruled in May 2006 that abortion was allowed in cases of rape, incest or if the life of the mother or foetus is in danger.
The key to her success, Roa said, was to take up the matter with the constitutional court and not seek legal reform through the legislature, an approach that had failed six times in the past.
The 34-year-old Colombian lawyer, educated in Bogota and New York, also avoided becoming mired in a public debate with Colombia’s influential Catholic Church.
“We argued that reproductive rights were a human rights issue, not a moral or religious issue, and we didn’t get engaged in arguments with the Catholic Church but focused on the constitutional arguments. We took it for granted that Colombia is a secular state,” said Roa, who, together with several academics, took nine months to put the case together.
For Roa, abortion is also a public health issue. Roughly 300,000 clandestine abortions are performed every year in Colombia, causing an estimated third of all maternal deaths in the country.
A trailblazer among women’s rights groups, Roa is seen as a role model and her winning strategy an inspiration for other activists across Latin America looking to roll back some of the world’s most stringent abortion laws, especially in El Salvador, Chile and Nicaragua.
But Roa’s high-profile campaign, backed by the international women’s rights group Women’s Link Worldwide of which Roa is programmes director, did not come without problems. She was branded ‘Satan’s daughter’ by opponents, and, following death threats, was assigned three bodyguards by the government. “Once you get a victory, you should expect to get some sort of backlash,” Roa said.
Since the historic court ruling almost five years ago, some progress has been made in ensuring women can access their abortion rights in Colombia, she said. The Colombian government has issued technical guidelines on the abortion law, clearly setting out the obligations and rights of health service providers and doctors.
Measuring the real impact of the less restrictive abortion law is difficult since official statistics are scarce and incomplete. However, Roa said too many women in Colombia are still putting their lives at risk by having backstreet abortions and many are still being denied the right to a legal abortion.
Getting all health service providers, insurance companies, private and public hospitals, and individual doctors to comply with the abortion law amid ongoing resistance from the Church, anti-abortion groups and some conservative government officials, is a constant challenge, she said. It’s a battle that Roa describes as often “taking one step forward and two steps back.” “One day abortion is a crime, the next day it’s an obligation in some cases. I think that’s a logical roadblock,” Roa said, referring to the time it may take to change long-held mindsets.
A lack of awareness about changes to abortion legislation is also another obstacle. “There definitely needs a lot more to be done in terms of letting women and doctors know what the new rights and obligations are according to the constitutional court’s decision,” Roa said.
“Many women don’t have that information and if they do they don’t know how to hold their own doctor accountable when they refuse to provide abortion services.” Under Colombian law, doctors have the right to refuse to perform an abortion on the grounds of conscientious objection, but they still have a legal obligation to refer a woman to a colleague who will provide the procedure.
But this is still not widespread practice, Roa said. As a result, Roa and the Women’s Link team now spend much of their time trying to hold accountable those who fail to provide legal abortions and uphold the abortion law. In one high-profile case in 2009, a health insurance company was fined $170,000 after refusing to allow an abortion for a 13-year-old girl who had been raped.
Women’s Link also filed a disciplinary complaint against a judge who, citing his conscientious objection, refused to settle a case involving a woman who had requested a lawful abortion but was denied one. The group successfully argued that under Colombian law judges must deliver verdicts based on law, and not on their moral or religious beliefs.
Recently, Roa turned her attention to raising awareness about other women’s rights issues. She is campaigning to secure convictions against military officers who allegedly committed rape during Argentina’s dictatorship era in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Also, Roa is focusing on the trafficking of women, an issue she says that should not be “seen as an immigration issue by governments, but a human rights one.” END.
TIMELINE – The road to easing Colombia’s abortion law
April 2005 – Monica Roa, backed by rights group Women’s Link Worldwide, files case in the country’s constitutional court seeking to partially legalise abortion in Colombia.
May 2006 - After 11 hours of debate, judges ruled 5-3 in favor of legalizing abortion under certain circumstances.
August 2006 – First legal abortion performed on an 11-year-old girl who was raped by her stepfather. The girl's case had to go all the way to the constitutional court before the abortion was authorised. The Church condemned the action and excommunicated the medical team that performed the procedure.
July 2010 – United Nations human rights committee urges the Colombian government to do more to uphold the abortion law. It stated: “..the Ministry of Health, health services providers are refusing to provide legal abortions and that the Procurador General (Ombudsman's office) is failing to support the implementation of the decision of the Constitutional Court on this.
For more information:
Cristina Sánchez Velázquez
Cell phone: +34 669 464 490
Telephone: +34 91 185 19 04