San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Feminists Hope to Spark Abortion Debate

While some Latin American countries are taking baby steps toward the decriminalization of abortion, Costa Rica offers no sign it will ever change its Penal Code despite a pressing demand from the country’s feminist groups to open discussion on the divisive topic.

Abortion, with very few exceptions, is illegal in Costa Rica.

The Colectiva por el Derecho a Decidir (Pro-Choice Association) and the Feminist Information and Action Center (CEFEMINA), Costa Rica’s two focal points in the Latin America-wide “September 28” campaign that aims to decriminalize the procedure, advocate this ideal with the knowledge that attempting legal reforms in Costa Rica may be premature at the moment.

“We do not have any reform projects planned right now. If we went to the Legislative Assembly our opponents would be women,” said Adriana Maroto, coordinator of the Pro-Choice Association’s abortion decriminalization project, adding that “an organization cannot achieve reform if that is not what society demands.”

Ana Helena Chacón, president of the Women’s Issues Commission in the Assembly, proved Maroto right saying she believes most of the assembly is pro-life and she doubts an abortion discussion will emerge during this administration.

Costa Rican law punishes those who end unwanted pregnancies with up to three years in prison.Anyone who performs an abortion without a woman’s consent can face up to 10 years in jail.

Although therapeutic abortion is legal in cases where doctors deem the mother’s life to be at risk, feminists argue it is hardly ever practiced here.

The Colectiva, a group of 12 feminist members, has set off toward a final destination of legal reform with mild goals, such as conducting research, generating debate, and studying the experience of Colombia, which this year decriminalized abortion.

In anticipation of Sept. 28, declared the Day to Fight for the Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Colectiva invited Colombian political analyst Claudia Gómez to the country to share her experiences in coordinating a successful decriminalization campaign in that South American nation.

The Colombian Example

Maroto said the work of Gómez, 27, and her lawyer Mónica Roa, 31, resulted in an unprecedented event in Latin America: legal reform to allow abortion.

This year, Colombia decriminalized the medical procedure in three areas: rape cases, when a pregnancy puts a woman’s life at risk and in case of dangerous fetal malformations.

In an interview with The Tico Times during her visit to Costa Rica, Gómez explained the road to decriminalization began in May 2005 with a lawsuit arguing the Colombian Penal Code’s prohibition of abortion was unconstitutional, and abortion should be legalized in those three cases.

Nine months later, the Colombian court announced it would abstain from making a ruling for reasons Gómez attributed to the country’s overall political climate.

Days after this announcement, on Dec. 12, Roa filed the lawsuit again, this time demanding complete decriminalization of the procedure, according to Gómez, project coordinator in Colombia for the women’s rights organization Women’s Link Worldwide to which Roa also belongs.

To the joy of feminists, on May 10 the Colombian court ruled in favor of decriminalization in the three cases requested in the original lawsuit. Full explanation of the ruling was released Sept. 5.

According to Gómez, the ruling is the result of a 30-year struggle by feminists in Colombia. It has already allowed for an 11-year-old girl impregnated after being repeatedly raped by her stepfather to have an abortion as well as a woman who was pregnant with a malformed fetus that would eventually die.

The Catholic Church in Colombia has announced that those who perform or get abortions or concur with the practice are “excommunicated ipso facto” (not by the Vatican or a Church authority, but automatically), according to the Latin American Catholic Information Agency (ACI) news service.

Gómez attributed some of the success of the Colombian decriminalization campaign to their media strategy.

“Women decide, society respects, the state guarantees, the Church does not intervene.”

Using this as their campaign motto, feminists did not openly debate with the Church but approached the topic as an issue of women’s rights.

Gómez and Roa also counted on the crucial support of Catholics for a Free Choice, a regional network of pro-choice Catholic women who rely on biblical passages to support their position.

The organization, established in the United States in 1973 and born in Latin America in 1987, has no branch in Costa Rica. However, its representatives have visited the country to deliver conferences on several occasions (TT, Oct. 7, 2005).

Maroto said the Colectiva aims to take Colombia’s example and open debate on the topic in Costa Rica without any religious underpinnings.

In Costa Rica, three therapeutic abortions were practiced last year, and eight in 2004, according to Xinia Fernández, spokeswoman for the Costa Rican Social Security System (Caja).

According to Maroto, the law that permits therapeutic abortion is thwarted because the Caja lacks an abortion protocol, a situation that likely stems from the country’s religious values.

Ileana Calvo, chief of the Caja Women’s Health Program, confirmed no protocol exists but said health officials have begun discussing the possibility of developing one.

Despite the Penal Code, clandestine abortions do occur in Costa Rica, and sometimes they don’t go well.

Caja statistics show that from 1990-1994, 12.4% of maternal deaths resulted from these procedures. From 1984-1991, 8,669 women were hospitalized for complications stemming from their clandestine abortions.

More recent statistics were not provided because, for “legal reasons,” the Caja no longer keeps a record of statistics surrounding clandestine abortions, according to a representative of its Statistics Department who asked not to be named.

According to the Child Welfare Office (PANI), between 1998 and 2003, 823 children under age 14 gave birth even though it is against the law to have sex with minors.

The Colectiva mentions this as one of the reasons why it favors decriminalization.

As part of this year’s Sept. 28 activities, for the second consecutive year it has released a calendar that runs from Sept. 28, 2006 to the same date next year, with artistic photos of women and text outlining reasons for decriminalization.

Since the middle of this year, it has been conducting a study among social organizations and politically active citizens to determine their positions on abortion.

So far, they have interviewed 5-10% of the study’s total subject pool, according to Maroto.

The Colectiva and the FeministActionCenter will also be releasing information about abortion on Sept. 28, a date that will be commemorated by women in the campaign’s 21 member countries.

To obtain a calendar or for more information on the Colectiva, call 272-4963. For information on CEFEMINA, call 224-3986.


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