Published on Thursday, October 13, 2005 by The Independent
Colombian Abortion Law Campaign is Undermined by Washington
by Andrew Buncombe
Monica Roa has been the victim of death threats and burglaries and even accused of plotting genocide. Bodyguards stand at her door and travel with her every where. Despite all this, she refuses to back down.
The 29-year-old lawyer is the centre of an effort to overhaul the abortion law in Colombia, which has the most restrictive such legislation in Latin America. In a few nations in the region, abortion is illegal under any circumstances.
Ms Roa's opponents are the most senior figures within the church, hugely powerful in a country where more than 90 per cent of the population is Catholic. Yet she said her campaign to change the law was also undermined by the administration of President George Bush and its controversial "Mexico City" policy which bans overseas aid for groups that support abortion.
"It's been crucial," Ms Roa told The Independent on the phone from Bogota. "I have had lots of people saying they support what I am doing but they cannot say so publicly. People cannot speak about it. They lose their funding from USaid [US Agency for International Development] that goes to other projects in Colombia."
Figures from Colombia's Social Welfare Ministry show that about 300,000 illegal abortions are performed every year in the country. Ms Roa said these "backstreet abortions" were the third-highest cause of mortality for women in Colombia. Toxemia during pregnancy - when toxins enter the bloodstream because of high blood pressure - may kill even more: a 1991 study suggested 25 per cent of all women's deaths were caused by this.
Despite this, opposition to the Ms Roa's lawsuit has been loud, vociferous and threatening. Jose Galat, the rector of the Roman Catholic Great Colombia University, has even likened abortion to the massacres during the country's ongoing civil war. "How can we denounce crimes by the illegal armed groups if we make it legal for a mother to murder her unborn child," he said. "We lose all legitimacy."
Mr Galat said Ms Roa's opponents had submitted a two-million-signature petition to the Constitutional Court urging magistrates to maintain the existing laws. The court is expected to rule within two months.
Ms Roa, who works for the international women's group Women's Link Worldwide, crafted her proposal to gain as much support as possible. Though she supports widespread access to abortions, her lawsuit seeks only to change the law to make the procedure legal when a woman has been raped, her life is at risk or if the fetus has deformations "incompatible with life outside the womb".
The US government's Mexico City policy was introduced in the 1970s after the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v Wade which recognised a women's right to an abortion. Campaigners say the law, suspended by President Bill Clinton but swiftly reinstated when George Bush took office in 2001, forces many overseas groups that provide health care for women to stand silent on the abortion issue.
In Colombia, Profamilia Colombia, one of the country's largest family-planning groups, used to be an outspoken critic of the country's abortion ban. These days, dependent for half of its funding on the US, the group refuses to comment.
Frances Kissling, president of the Washington-based group Catholics for a Free Choice, said a poll in 2003 showed that most Colombians support legal abortion when the woman's life is in danger, her health is at risk, the fetus has severe abnormalities or pregnancy is the result of rape.
Chile, El Salvador, Honduras and Suriname prohibit abortion in all circumstances. Brazilian legislators in the world's largest Catholic country shelved a Bill to legalise abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy after opposition from Brazil's National Conference of Bishops and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. It forbids abortion except in rape or severe danger to the mother's life.
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.