Colombian feminists announce abortion with help from their neighbors

BOGOTá, Colombia – Decades of organizing, with meetings in living rooms and on the street, online and across borders, have created a tectonic shift in abortion in Latin America, one historically conservative area where access to this procedure has long been severely restricted.

In just over a year, Colombia has joined Mexico and Argentina in breaking the abortion barrier. All are more striking in contrast to the change taking place in the United States, whose Supreme Court decision guaranteeing abortion rights – Roe v. Wade – has been a flash of prominence for many activists. movement in Latin America.

As the United States faces increasing restrictions on abortion, feminists in Latin America are increasingly relying on each other for legal strategy, organizational tactics, and inspiration. , indicating that their counterparts in the north may have something to learn from them.

Catalina Martínez Coral, 37, a Colombian lawyer and member of Causa Justa, an alliance of abortion rights groups that recently took the case to Colombian courts for review, said: “Now it is an inspiration. going from south to north. “We will inspire people in the United States to defend the rights set forth in Roe v. Wade.”

As abortion rights advocates in Colombia prepare to bring their case before the country’s highest court this year, they have drawn on tactics from neighboring countries: They learn from the lawyers in the country. Mexicopassed a dance performance similar to one Chile and waved the first green handkerchief to emerge as a symbol of the movement in Argentina.

And when the country’s supreme court rule in their favor on Monday, largely opposed to a measure making abortion a crime, they gathered outside the courthouse to celebrate and thank those who helped make the moment a reality: partners theirs throughout Latin America.

Abortion still has many opponents in the region, including Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, a conservative who condemned Tuesday’s ruling.

“I worry that abortion, which goes against life, will become a routine,” I said local media shortly after taking office. “And that in a machista country, people will use it, and for many people it will become a contraceptive in place of condoms.”

But Colombian abortion rights activists insisted this week that the tactics they used to lobby for abortion abolition would now be used by advocates across the region and more than that.

“The whole world is watching us,” said Natalia Goyeneche, 31, one of many women who stood in court on Monday when the verdict was announced.

In Colombia, feminist activists’ calls for abortion rights have gone mainstream over the past two years, as their partners have won big in neighboring countries.

However, the origins of this movement go back decades – at least to 1973, when a Colombian obstetrician-gynecologist accepted an invitation to visit the United States just as the US Supreme Court ruled on case Roe v. Wade.

Dr. Jorge Villarreal Mejía has for years been appalled by the number of women he has seen falling ill and dying from excessive abortions in Colombian hospitals. In the United States, he toured some of the country’s earliest legal abortion clinics. And he went back to Colombia and convinced that he had to replicate them.

He started a reproductive health clinic, Orientamein the capital, Bogotá, in 1977. And organizing in many ways helped pave the way for this week’s decision.

Despite the law that criminalizes abortion, Oriéntame has publicly begun to help hundreds of thousands of Colombian women who have begun to end their pregnancies. – explain to authorities that they are helping women who have had unsuccessful or incomplete abortions.

Over the years, Oriéntame was regularly targeted by authorities, who accused them of breaking the law, while vandals sporadically “killed” outside the office. But tensions escalated in 1994, when police banged on the clinic door, pulled out a gun and took away patient records, starting a decade-long legal process that could land Dr. Villarreal in jail. .

That’s when Cristina Villarreal – the daughter of Dr. Villareal who was taking over the clinic – decided that they needed to go beyond providing medical help and start uniting with working feminists. to change the legal context in which they work.

She recalls the words of activists and medics: “It doesn’t make sense if we continue on two different paths. “Now is the time.”

Before long, Ms. Villarreal and others had formed La Mesa por la Vida y la Salud de las Mujeres, a coalition whose main goal was to eliminate laws criminalizing abortion.

As for Colombia, she said, “this is completely, completely radical and revolutionary.”

But putting the issue on the public agenda is difficult, and not least because abortion is opposed by the powerful Catholic Church and most of the public.

“This is a country that has been defeated by conflict and war,” said Ana Cristina González Vélez, 53, the organization’s co-founder. ”

The push to legalize abortion through the Colombian Congress seems to have hit a dead end. Over half a dozen attempts failed, and around 2004 a Colombian lawyer named Monica Roa approached Mesa and suggested a new tactic.

Ms. Roa recently returned from the United States, where she is working for a legal advocacy group called the Center for Reproductive Rights. She will go to the country’s Constitutional Court – notoriously more liberal than its Parliament – and argue that legislation criminalizing abortion has violated women’s rights to autonomy over life, health and reproduction.

In 2006, she achieved a major victory for the movement, when a court ruled that the country must allow abortion when a woman’s health is in danger, when the fetus has serious health problems. or during pregnancy due to rape.

Several other Latin American countries have made similar decisions in this book, but policy and public opinion are so strongly opposed to the procedure that in practice, very few women can legally obtain abortions. . And so, after the 2006 ruling, Colombian activists began teaching women in other countries to use the exceptions allowed by law.

“Without a doubt, we learned from the Colombians,” said Giselle Carino, an Argentine activist with the group Fòs Feminista.

But in Colombia, prosecutors are still investigating hundreds of women each year for having abortions, while many women are still dying from nefarious procedures.

Around 2016, the women devised a new strategy – one aimed at changing both the legal landscape and public opinion, with a strong public awareness component.

As Colombians worked, Argentine feminists began campaigning to push for legalization through Congress. Their effort included hundreds of thousands of women marching through the streets, united by one recognizable symbol: the green handkerchief.

Their use of scarves themselves was inspired by an earlier generation of female activists, known as the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, who wore white scarves to protest the kidnapping and killing their children by the Argentine dictatorship.

“Part of our strategy is: How do we change the domestic conversation, how do we put this on the public agenda?” Ms. Martínez, one of the Colombian activists, said. “And that’s what we learned from the Argentinians.”

At the end of 2019, the Argentine Congress legalized abortion – and two months later, just as the pandemic broke out, Colombia’s Causa Justa union was born.

This time, they had campaigns on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook, and marched across the country. They had a radio campaign targeting areas with limited connectivity and a reggaeton song they performed on the street.

They urge celebrities to publicly support them. Suddenly, public officials were forced to declare a position on the subject, and green scarves began to appear on necks, backpacks and bicycles all over Bogotá.

And in September 2020, a group of lawyers from Causa Justa – drawing on legal lessons from Canada – filed an application with the Constitutional Court, arguing that the existence of a law criminalizing abortion violated women’s “fundamental right” to voluntarily terminate. pregnancy under exceptions introduced in 2006.

On Monday, the judges voted in favor of 5 to 4, which would mean abortions up to 24 weeks.

Over the past few decades, Oriéntame has trained thousands of medical professionals across Latin America, many of whom have replicated their clinics in their own countries. Dr. Villarreal passed away in 2001.

Nearly all of the activists interviewed said that Roe v. Wade is a background for them, leading them to believe that the legal system can be used to help women take greater control of their lives.

Many people are currently struggling to understand why the US seems to be going in the opposite direction.

“This is a never ending battle,” Villarreal advised her counterparts in the north. “You can’t let your guard down.”

Megan Janetsky contribution report. Colombian feminists announce abortion with help from their neighbors

Fry Electronics Team

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