Colombia, abortion and the Green Wave taking hold of Latin America

Emilio Faulkner is a second year IR student in the Department of War Studies. Due to his Honduran heritage he is motivated to take on the position of Latin America Editor for IR Today. He believes Latin America is often understudied and disregarded in the study of IR. Emilio is therefore excited to have the opportunity to fill this void and explore the region’s role in international affairs. As well as Latin America, his academic interests lie in the concepts of Grand Strategy, Statecraft and the recent re-emergence of major power rivalry on the global stage.

The Green Wave, the emerging movement campaigning for the right to safe and legal abortions in Latin America, is gaining momentum in the region. Their green handkerchiefs are becoming ever more prominent in Latin American social circles and after their significant victories in Mexico and Argentina, the Colombian Constitutional Court has recently afforded the movement with its biggest success yet.

In February, an incredible milestone was surpassed in Latin America. The Colombian Constitutional Court is seen by many as a regional trendsetter and its recent decision to decriminalise abortion during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy could mark a ‘cultural sea change’ across the region. In a region with a population so strongly led and guided by immensely powerful Catholic and religious lobbies at all levels of society, this marks an indescribable and unprecedented shift. This will be a moment few, whether against or in favour, will forget.

Colombia, as goes with the rest of Latin America has long struggled with the issue of abortion. The issue at hand is that the criminalisation of abortion does neither eliminate nor even reduce abortion rates. It simply prevents women from accessing proper healthcare and poses a severe risk to their lives and well-being. In Colombia, this has led to only 10% of abortions taking place legally each year, with 350 women having been prosecuted from 2006 to 2019 for undertaking the procedure. Currently, 52 abortions take place per every 100 births and one-fifth of women who experience abortion-related complications will not receive treatment. This underscores the widespread nature of the issue facing Latin American governments and courts, but the Colombian Constitutional Court’s recent decision may very well have sparked the movement into action.

However, this process is still very much in its early stages. On the eve of the decision in Bogota, masses of campaigners on both sides of the debate gathered outside the court to await the announcement of the result. In previous weeks, very public campaigns took place to attempt to sway the court’s decision. Therefore, although the pro-life, Green Wave movement won out in this instance, there is still a severe divide on the issue and the debate is by no means settled. Much more work and campaigning will be necessary and they should be ready for what could feel like a never-ending journey, but this is a vital step in the right direction. 

The timing of these events in Latin America is especially startling considering what is now taking place in the USA – considered the land of the free, democracy, the ‘American Dream’ and endless possibilities. As Latin America begins its liberalising journey, the US is going in the opposite direction. A recently leaked initial majority draft written by Justice Alito indicates that the Supreme Court has ruled to strike down the 1973 Roe vs Wade decision. This landmark decision ruled that the US Constitution protects pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. This would bring an end to the guarantee of federal constitutional protection of abortion rights and allow each state to decide whether to allow abortion and to what extent. The Supreme Court’s ruling is not yet official, but the murmurings over overturning Roe vs Wade after more than 50 years highlight the divisive and brutally persistent nature of the abortion debate. Therefore, the fact Latin America and especially Colombia have begun to take such steps at a time in which the perceived greatest country in the world is going backwards highlights the magnitude of the achievement.

Therefore, we will have the same uncertainty as we wait to hear the US Supreme court’s ruling on Roe vs Wade, as we will be seeing the abortion debate take place in Latin America. The older, more traditional and religiously minded sectors of the population will clash with an emerging younger, better educated, more secular generation. This makes for a long-drawn-out period, but one we cannot afford to lose sight of. 

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