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Pro-abortion activist are using high-profile cases and secular media to push for legalized abortion in Latin America.
BY ALEJANDRO BERMÚDEZLatin America Correspondent
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — September headlines
showcased conflicting signs from Latin American political life. On Sept. 20, Venezuela’s pro-abortion and irreverent
president criticized America
at the United Nations. On Sept. 5, Mexican courts ruled that the pro-family
Felipe Calderon won the July presidential election.
But it was Aug. 25, a foggy Friday
in Bogotá, that confirmed a disturbing trend in Latin America. That day will go down in history as the
day the first legal abortion was performed in Colombia.
A group of doctors performed the
abortion on an 11-year-old girl raped by her stepfather, while thousands of pro-life
demonstrators protested outside the Simon
Bolívar Hospital in Bogotá. At the same time,
feminist organizations hailed the abortion in media outlets as a “big day” for
the predominantly Catholic country.
But Monica Roa,
the Colombian-born, New York-resident attorney who headed the legal and media
battle that ended with the legalization of abortion by Colombia’s
Constitutional Court last May, was not in Bogotá to listen to either side.
She was in Buenos
advising local feminist activists on how to exploit two high-profile rape
stories to obtain the same result — the legalization of abortion by judicial
means in Argentina.
The pro-abortion cause in Argentina has
already made significant inroads lately. The Supreme Court of the province of Buenos Aires issued a 6-3 ruling in
August, allowing a 19-year-old mentally handicapped woman, pregnant after being
raped by a family member, to undergo an abortion.
The case made its way to the
provincial Supreme Court after both a lower court and an appeal court ruled
against the abortion.
Doctors at a public hospital
refused to comply with the order, objecting that the baby was too far developed
for the procedure to take place. But the abortion was finally performed at a
The ‘American Way’
Roa, a lawyer who works for the New
York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, believes that almost all moves to
change legislation in Latin America through stealthy “baby steps” have failed,
mostly because of a cultural opposition to abortion and the powerful influence
of the Catholic Church.
So she and her colleagues at the
center have opted for another strategy: Go high-profile, rely on the support of
the secular media with emotional stories like rape cases, and then legalize
abortion “the American way” — by the means of the Supreme Court.
Although Colombia is the Center for Reproductive Rights’
showcase, a similar strategy was used early this year in Mexico.
A rape victim, Paulina
Ramirez, was used by the organization and its local partners to force the
Mexican state of Baja California
to approve abortion in cases of rape. The center sued the state “for preventing
her access to abortion since the birth of the child violated her sexual
integrity.” A court decision ordered the state to pay a civil reparation and
“review procedures” to allow abortions when rape is argued.
“The coincidence in the strategy
is not by chance,” said Antonio Donato, a Brazilian pro-life leader who has been following
the legal strategy used by pro-abortion advocates in Latin America and in his
home country, where a recent move to legalize abortion by a congressional bill
“They know they can’t count on the
culture, they can’t count on the votes in Congress, and they can’t count on the
people,” Donato said about abortion activists. “But
they count on most of the secular media and know that our legal system is
feeble and prone to being impressed with international agreements.”
Donato cited an essay written by Roa and two other members of the Center for Reproductive
Rights, Lilian Sepulveda-Oliva
and Luisa Cabal, entitled “What Role Does International Law Play in the
Promotion and Advancing of Reproductive Rights in Latin
In their essay, they openly
propose using litigation based on international law to “develop new standards
for the protection of reproductive rights” and to force local authorities to
ignore national laws and allow abortion and “reproductive health” services for
The essay acknowledges that their
agenda is “still without a solid legal framework that reflects an obligation to
exercise reproductive rights.” To get around this, the feminist lawyers
advocate “proactive action” and “media exposure.”
Carlos Polo, director for Latin America of the U.S.-based Population Research
Institute, said that the feminist legal strategy “clearly marks a completely
“The new priority of the
pro-abortion organizations is not to prioritize congressional representatives
or penal codes,” Polo said. “It is the reinterpretation of international pacts
and treaties … to change the law by the means of either the executive branch of
power or the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court.”
“They know that in Latin America, these branches are more sensitive to
pressure from the media and far less accountable to the people than
Speaking to The New York Times following the court decision in May that led to
Colombia’s first abortion, Buenos Aires-based Mabel Bianco,
president of the Foundation for Studies and Research on Women, said that the
decision could trigger lawsuits in other countries demanding that abortion be
legalized to conform with international treaties that address women’s health
“I think this decision will prompt
countries in Latin America that have stringent
legislation to reflect that abortion is not ideological, but a health care
issue,” Bianco said.
In March 2005, Roa
addressed a conference at New
at which she provided a preview of the feminist strategy.
“Everything she said at that
conference, including the invitation of Frances Kissling,
from ‘Catholics for a Free Choice,’ to try to undermine Catholicism in Colombia, became true in the following months,”
said Rafael Nieto Loayza, a former vice minister of
justice in Colombia.
Nieto recently wrote in the
Colombian daily El Tiempo
that “those who seek the legalization [of abortion] have been exposed as the
well-oiled machine they are.”
Wrote Nieto, “The fact that The New York Times was clearly
explaining Roa’s strategy before anybody knew of it
in Colombia reveals that there is an organized strategy to liberalize abortion
in the region on the basis of ‘exceptions’ such as rape or fetal deformation.”
The Population Research
Institute’s Polo admits that after Colombia,
the new pro-abortion strategy looks quite effective, since most of the secular
media is responding as predicted and, in places like Argentina, the judiciary is also
“The media is not on our side and
time is not on our side either; but the people and the culture is still on our side, and we have to take advantage of
that,” Polo adds.
In fact, the massive anti-abortion
demonstrations in Colombia
have made feminists admit that full legalization of abortion in Colombia is not
possible in the near future.
And in Brazil, a recent poll has revealed
that support for abortion is waning, not increasing. The company Datafolha polled 7,000 Brazilians and found that 63% of
them believe the country’s abortion laws should remain untouched. Only 41% of
those surveyed two years ago, in an official poll by the Ministry of Health,
“With the massive media campaign, these figures will not hold for ever, so this
is the time to come up with legislation to ‘shield’ the life of the unborn in
is based in Lima, Peru.