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Reaching the Moveable Middle on Abortion in Latin America

September 28 is the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion, a movement that originated in Latin America and the Caribbean, and has since spread throughout the world.

It unfolded like the plot of a Hollywood thriller: a phone tap targeting a Colombian hacker who was obtaining information about the FARC guerrilla group happened to pick up a phone call placed by the hacker’s sister-in-law: a famous Colombian actress, who, according to authorities, discussed her abortion on that call.

On a Friday earlier this month, the prosecutor’s office announced they would charge the actress with illegal abortion. The following Monday, they retracted amid national outcry over an egregious case of state surveillance. The fiasco raised serious questions about the interpretation and implementation of Colombia’s current abortion law, which has permitted abortions in certain cases for over nine years.

The trouble is, in Colombia, as in much of Latin America, simply legalizing abortion often isn’t enough—the subsequent fight to make sure women are allowed to exercise that right can be even more difficult.

In May 2006, the Constitutional Court confirmed the right of Colombian women and girls to choose “therapeutic abortion”—termination of pregnancy in cases of rape, fatal fetal malformations, or when their lives or physical or mental health are at risk.

It was a major victory in a country where abortion had previously been completely illegal. When I led the 2006 challenge to the abortion ban, we took an unorthodox approach: instead of trying to convert people who would never support abortion under any circumstances, Women’s Link worked to engage the large number of people in the middle—people who were willing to support a woman’s right to an abortion in complicated or heartbreaking circumstances, such as when she had been raped or when her health was in jeopardy.

Approaching the issue this way, as a matter of minimal fundamental rights, helped us win the case. But we knew that a law on paper was not enough. We had to fight for implementation because without our interventions, the law would continue to be unknown or overlooked.

This was an aha! moment for activists in other countries around the region that already had laws allowing for therapeutic abortion. By focusing on the implementation of those laws, we could increase women’s access to this basic human right, while continuing to challenge restrictive abortion laws.

One would think that implementing a law that’s already on the books would be easy, but that’s not the case at all. In Peru, for instance, it took almost 10 years to comply with the United Nations Human Rights Committee's mandate that abortion be regulated in cases where the woman’s health is at risk, which had long been legal.

In Bolivia, abortion in cases of rape has been legal since 1972, but it was only two years ago that the Constitutional Court finally removed the requirement that the victim get authorization from a judge. Even this change has had little effect. Just recently, we learned of the case of an 11-year-old Bolivian girl who was raped by her stepfather and ended up taking the pregnancy to term. It is unclear whether this girl knew she had the option of terminating her pregnancy.

In Argentina, a 2012 ruling by the Supreme Court clarified that abortion is not a crime in cases of rape, and ordered protocols be put in place to ease access to timely abortion services. But implementation of the ruling has been met with stiff resistance in several provinces. And then there is the now well-known case of the 10-year-old Paraguayan girl, raped by her stepfather, who was refused an abortion even though it was allowed by law.

The list of Latin American countries where therapeutic abortion is permitted is growing. It includes the Dominican Republic as of 2014, and may soon include Chile, whose legislature is currently debating the issue.

Clearly, these are great steps forward, considering that there are countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua where the procedure is still criminalized in all cases. But it does little good if we do not demand transparency, readily available and accurate information, and access to services. This is why comprehensive implementation is key.

Working to get abortion recognized as a right is a thorny task. Any progress we make is seen as too little by some, a bridge too far by others, and irrelevant by many. We strive to construct a narrative that goes against deeply entrenched stigma and centuries of religious and legal tradition in order to create a place for women’s autonomy and freedom in contemporary society.

Sometimes it feels like we are fighting to change frustratingly immovable forces. And then there are moments—like those three days in Colombia when the country came together to castigate the prosecutor for violating this actress’s rights—when we see how far we’ve come in almost 10 years since the court changed the abortion law.

The middle is moving, and it’s making a difference in women’s lives.

Women’s Link Worldwide is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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