Gustavo Silva

Abortion under attack

posted by Gustavo Silva Cano
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Colombia news - abortion

All women should have a right to abort if their pregnancies are the product of rape or put their lives at risk, or if their unborn babies suffer severe deformities. This is obvious to me.

The moral reasons that support this point of view, which I intend to explore below, are much more sound than those used against it. In May of 2006, Colombia’s Constitutional Court issued a landmark decision that effectively legalized abortion in these three specific cases, thus advancing the often ignored rights of Colombian women. No longer would raped girls be forced to suffer the added humiliation of raising the children of their attackers, or of being pushed into dodgy dangerous backrooms so that they could undergo an intervention that the state called a crime. No longer would women have to choose between saving their own lives or committing a criminal offense that could make them serve up to three years in jail. No longer would mothers be obligated to lead lives of anxiety and anguish by seeing their own children suffer every minute as a consequence of genetic malformation.

The strong political forces of Colombia’s religious right have aligned themselves in order to reverse and leave in limbo the basic abortion rights Colombian women enjoy today. The State Council and Alejandro Ordóñez, the Inspector General have launched a juridical war against the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court. On the one hand, the State Council literally put the Court´s decision on hold, because it believed that the authority to regulate the decision fell on the legislative branch (through a statute), and not on the executive (who regulated the norm using a decree). This shameless excuse, based on dubious legalisms, means that no hospital in Colombia can practice otherwise legal abortions until there is clarification on this issue. All those girls and women who are in desperate need of an abortion so that they can save their lives, must now wait.

The Inspector General´s attack on abortion was less vicious, although it has other equally worrying consequences. Earlier this month, the Constitutional Court issued another decision which ordered that all schools include classes on Colombia’s limited right to abortion as part of their sexual education curriculum. Unsurprisingly, the decision angered religious conservatives, such as the Inspector General, who released a statement without delay calling for the annulment of the Court’s decision. Again, as it happened with the State Council’s objections, the Inspector General claimed that Congress, and not the Court, was the right place to make such decisions.

Note the State Council and the Inspector General have not attacked the Court’s decisions on religious, moral, ethical, or fundamental rights grounds. They are simply questioning the validity of the juridical process through which those decisions were taken or regulated. These are criticisms of form that have had the impact of affecting the substance of the Court’s landmark decisions, de facto rendering them invalid. Yet, it is difficult to believe that the Inspector General’s profoundly Catholic convictions are not interfering with the way in which he has handled the issue. There is nothing wrong at all with being deeply religious, but I have a problem when unelected public officials start bringing their faith-based agendas into the secular public arena. I am convinced that the this is exactly what the Inspector General has done in this case.

In understand that a majority of Colombians may well be inflexible anti-abortionists, who believe that a woman never has a right to end her pregnancy even under the most extreme of circumstances. After all, Colombia still is a parochial, largely conservative society: the first legal abortion in Colombia, performed on an 11 year-old who had been raped by her stepfather, did not fail to outrage many people. It is very likely that if Colombians were to decide this issue by referendum, the pro-choice side would lose miserably.

But even if the majority is opposed to abortion, that does not change the fact that the majority is wrong. MIT philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson’s classic 1971 article “A Defense of Abortion” explains the issue with great lucidity and puts anti-abortionists against the wall. Professor Thomson maintains that pregnancy due to rape is akin to someone kidnapping you and surgically attaching you to someone else’s ill body (a famous violinist, in her analogy). For nine months, that ill person will be fully dependent on your metabolism for his own survival, and if you choose to detach yourself from him, he would most certainly die. However, you were put in that situation by force and against your will (as it occurs with rape), so at least you ought to have the choice of unplugging yourself. If you decide to lend your body for the person’s survival, you would be doing “a great kindness”, but detaching yourself and moving on with your life is certainly within your rights.

Professor Thomson’s defense of abortion in cases of risk to the woman’s life is also straightforward and powerful. It is consensus that people have a right to kill others in self defense. Now imagine that you are locked in your house with an inflatable baby that is always growing bigger and bigger. Eventually, the baby will grow so big that he will crush you against the walls. As you own the house and you are being put in imminent fatal danger, you have the right to kill him in order to survive. Professor Thomson writes: “[I]t cannot be seriously be thought to be murder if the mother performs an abortion on herself to save her life. It cannot seriously be said that she must refrain …However innocent the child may be, you do not have to wait passively while it crushes you to death.” You may choose, out of love for the baby, to let him crush you, but at least you ought to have a choice.

The Colombian government has an obligation to inform the population about these important, state-protected rights, just like they are told about a right to life, to vote, to education, to equality before the law, etc. There cannot be any distinctions in this matter between “good” rights and “bad” rights –Colombians ought to be equally informed about them all.

It is difficult to know where the actions of the State Council and the Inspector General will lead in the long run. They could be the beginning of the end for legalized abortion in Colombia. If Congress winds up legislating on the details of the Court’s decision, they will likely asphyxiate abortion with a pile of regulations. For the sake of Colombia’s women, I hope this does not occur.

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