Colombian ruling breaks seal on abortion rights in Latin America

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The Independent US

Women's rights campaigners pressing for more liberal abortion laws in Latin America have won a breakthrough victory following a ruling by Colombia's highest court saying women have the right to terminate their pregnancies when their lives are in danger or in cases of rape or incest.

Until now, Colombia has been one of three countries in the region - along with El Salvador and Chile - imposing a blanket ban on abortion under any circumstances. Tight restrictions have led to an epidemic of backstreet abortions, with the United Nations putting the number as high as four million per year across Latin America.

This week's ruling came in the wake of intense pressure from the UN Human Rights Committee and several high-profile non-governmental organisations, who argued that putting the life of a foetus ahead of that of the mother was a fundamental violation of women's rights. By a 5-3 vote, the court ruled that the complete ban was "disproportionate" and "irrational".

The issue captured the Colombian public's imagination most vividly through the story of Marta Zulay Gonzalez, a 34-year-old mother of four who is dying of ovarian cancer. When she was first diagnosed, she was three weeks pregnant and asked a public hospital to give her an abortion so she could undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment. The hospital refused.

Public debate has been increasingly impassioned as a presidential election looms at the end of this month. Colombia's incumbent president, Alvaro Uribe, has echoed the Catholic Church's line of zero tolerance on abortion, but his opponents have seized on the changing public mood to demand the modest reforms now endorsed by the Constitutional Court.

The ruling has been welcomed by reformers and women's rights groups. "This is a victory for women unparalleled in our country," said Monica Roa, the lawyer who brought the case.

It has also been denounced by conservatives and church leaders. The country's leading Catholic, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, called it "judicial stupidity" and "an attack on human life". "This is a bad decision, the fruit of international pressures that disrespect many Colombians," he said.

Earlier this week, anti-abortion groups took out newspaper advertisements calling abortion "a moral problem and not an issue of public health".

Their opponents vehemently disagree. Across Colombia, almost one-quarter of all pregnancies -- 300,000 a year -- end in abortion, according to Women's Link Worldwide, a Spanish-based women's rights group which financed the legal challenge in the constitutional court. Almost one-third of those abortions lead to medical complications, and unsafe abortion is the third-highest cause of mortality in expectant mothers, according to the group.

There are signs that liberalisation of abortion laws is being contemplated across the region. In Argentina and Uruguay, the issue has been taken up in parliament. Elsewhere, women's rights campaigners have turned to international organisations for support or sought recourse in the courts. Both Peru and Mexico were upbraided by international human rights commissions for refusing to sanction abortion in two high-profile cases -- in Mexico, it was a rape victim and in Peru, a woman with a severely malformed foetus.

The only country in Central or South America where abortion is easily available is Cuba. There, as in Europe, the number of unwanted pregnancies - and thus the number of abortions performed, regardless of legality - is significantly lower.

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