“This is an issue of human rights, whether women can make choices…with regard to their health and their lives,” said Marianne Mollman, Advocacy Director for the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “No one gets pregnant just to have an abortion…I don’t know of any women who had an abortion that didn’t feel they needed it.”
Mollman joined Mónica Roa, Program Director for Women’s Link Worldwide and lead attorney in the case that liberalized Colombia’s abortion law, at an event at the Center for American Progress to discuss how to advance a progressive agenda for women’s health and rights by connecting it to the larger framework of human rights—a strategy that is proving to be an effective tool for promoting reproductive and sexual rights across the globe.
Mollman described how “after speaking to a number of women who have not been able to exercise their reproductive rights,” the link between human rights and reproductive rights was clear. She drew a connection, for instance, between violence against women and their susceptibility to HIV/AIDS, and put the problem in a human rights context.
Mollman also relayed the story of one woman in particular whose human rights were violated on many levels—her right to life, health, dignity, autonomy and integrity, safety, and information were all diminished due to state inaction. Her husband was physically abusive and would not let her use contraception, despite the fact that doctors told her another pregnancy might kill her. Yet her request for sterilization was denied because the law required her husband’s consent.
Colombia had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world up until last May, despite an average of 350,000 illegal abortions per year. The abortion ban put many women, especially the most vulnerable who could not afford safer methods, at dire risk.
Yet on May 10, 2006, Mónica Roa and the women of Colombia won a landmark victory when the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that abortion should not be considered a crime under three circumstances: when the life or physical or mental health of the woman is in danger, when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, and when severe fetal malformations exist that are incompatible with life outside the womb.
This ruling creates an important international precedent for relating reproductive rights to human rights because the Constitutional Court stated that a total abortion ban violated international human rights norms, and therefore the Colombian Constitution.
“Sexual and reproductive rights of women have finally been recognized as human rights!” said Roa. This was possible, she explained, because Colombia’s governmental structure incorporates international human rights treaties into its constitution, requiring the government to abide by the international agreements into which it has entered.
Roa used public discussion of the case to shift cultural attitudes about abortion and educate the media to provide multiple perspectives on the issue rather than only the expected conservative religious response. “We [showed that] we were not trying to kill anyone. We were trying to save people,” Roa explained.
The success in Colombia is certainly a great breakthrough in the effort to bring new attention to reproductive rights by showing its clear relationship to basic human rights, but this example is hopefully just the beginning.
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