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How Colombia Could Inspire the Fight for Abortion Rights in the US

Colombia Expanded Abortion Rights Using Arguments Rooted in Human Rights

Members of the Pro-Abortion movement 'Causa Justa por el Aborto' take part during the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women demonstrations in Bogota, Colombia on November 25, 2021. © 2021 Sipa via AP Images

The US Supreme Court may have overturned Roe v. Wade, but people living in the United States should look to Colombia for motivation, as abortion rights were expanded there earlier this year.

On February 21, Colombia’s Constitutional Court delivered a major victory for women’s reproductive rights by decriminalizing abortionon all grounds up to 24 weeks of pregnancy.

The decision builds on a 2006 court ruling that legalized abortion if the pregnancy posed a risk to the health or the life of the pregnant person, was nonviable, or was the result of rape.

In both 2006 and 2022, the court centered its reasoning on women’s autonomy and human dignity.

In the 2022 ruling, the Court confirmed the need for the Colombian Constitution to be interpreted consistently with the country’s human rights treaty obligations.

The Court held that criminalization of abortion was a disproportionate and unnecessary tool to achieve the aim of protecting the life of the fetus, as criminal law should be used only as a last resort and not, as in this case, to harm women’s rights. The court also acknowledged that the criminalization of abortion mostly affects women and girls in vulnerable situations. This is consistent with Human Rights Watch research in other countries. In Ecuador, we found that most women and girls facing criminal charges for abortion are poor and disproportionately from provinces with a large Indigenous or Afro-descendant population.

The Court also acknowledged that the constitutional promise of equality for women is impossible without reproductive autonomy.

In 2006, the Court noted that criminalizing health care only needed by women, such as abortion services, was a violation of the right to nondiscrimination under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. In 2022, the Court noted that multiple international human rights bodies have raised the need to decriminalize abortion as a measure in favor of sexual and reproductive health and rights.

In recognizing reproductive rights as fundamental rights, the court’s decisions protect them from infringement by the criminal law.

This stands in stark contrast to the US Supreme Court decision, which dismantled the half-century old framework that allowed millions of women to access abortion care. This decision has placed the US against the worldwide trend – as seen in Colombia – toward expansion of abortion access and recognition of the fundamental rights at stake.

The US should take heed of lessons learned in Colombia. It should take into account international human rights standards and place women’s reproductive autonomy and rights at the center of US laws governing abortion access.


This dispatch is part of a series of on abortion and human rights globally. You can view all of the articles here:

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