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Latin American reproductive health rights activists have logged another victory.  Last week the Constitutional Court of Colombia (the highest court in the country) voted five to four to decriminalize abortion in the first twenty-four weeks of pregnancy.  Colombia thus joins Mexico and Argentina in decriminalization, which means that three of the four most populous countries of the region have taken a major step toward making abortion legal and accessible.  (Brazil’s vocal feminist movement is pushing for legalization, but so far has had no success.)

Colombian reproductive health rights activists are quick to point out that their victory owes a lot to their relationships with activists in other parts of Latin America.  The Colombians consulted with movement lawyers from Mexico, adopted street theatre performances originating in Chile, and wear the distinctive green kerchiefs first used by women activists in Argentina.

Latin American feminists know that the constant sharing of strategies and tactics across the region has made all of their movements stronger and more vibrant.  They contrast their recent successes with the string of TRAP laws in many U.S. states and the ominous probability that the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse Roe v. Wade this summer.  Catalina Martínez Coral, a lawyer and member of Causa Justa, the coalition of abortion rights groups that brought the relevant case to the Colombian Constitutional Court, noted that the waves of feminist activism are “now an inspiration going south to north… We are going to inspire people in the United States to defend the rights set out in Roe v. Wade.”  Serra Sipel, the chief global advocacy officer at Fòs Feminista, an international alliance of reproductive rights groups, agrees, saying “We in the U.S. can really learn a lot” from Latin American feminist organizations.

Some of the roots of Colombia’s reproductive rights movement can be traced back to a visit to the U.S. by the eminent Colombian obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Jorge Villareal Mejía.  Dr. Villareal toured some of the first legal abortion clinics that opened after the Roe v. Wade decision and decided to find a way to offer similar services in his homeland.  In 1977, he opened the first of his Oriéntame clinics in Bogotá.  The clinics offered a full range of reproductive health services, including abortion.  They charged on a sliding scale, and their promotional materials delicately urged their more affluent clients to contribute to the costs of procedures for poorer women.

Dr. Jorge Villareal Mejía (1927-2001)

I have known about Oriéntame since the early 1990s. Before full legalization of abortion in Colombia I referred to it by a pseudonym in my writing, in particular in my book Sex and Herbs and Birth Control.

Under Dr. Villareal’s direction the clinics pursued a remarkable two-pronged strategy.  On the one hand, Oriéntame skirted the question of illegality of abortion by labeling its services as “walk-in patient treatment of incomplete abortion.”  As a medical director of the organization once explained to me, a sympathetic Jesuit priest reconciled his support for Oriéntame with the Catholic view of abortion as a sin by reasoning that once a woman decided in her mind to have an abortion, she had begun the process.  Oriéntame personnel were merely aiding her to complete her abortion safely.  And indeed, in the forty-five years of their existence the clinics have performed close to a million abortions with a vanishingly small number of serious complications.

The second aspect of Dr. Villareal’s vision involved a brilliant outreach program.  To quote from Sex and Herbs and Birth Control (in which I referred to Oriéntame as CRH, or Centers for Reproductive Health): “CRH offers scholarships to midwives and doctors from other areas of Central and South America who might want to set up similar clinics.  They have trained over 600 physicians, nurses, physicians’ assistants, and traditional as well as licensed midwives in vacuum aspiration abortion techniques; their students perform abortions in clinics in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, and elsewhere…. In Peru I met a director of the country’s society of women obstetricians who had attended the program and was an enthusiastic advocate of the idea; I’ve run into CRH graduates in Nicaragua and Chile as well.”

Oriéntame personnel have not only trained numerous reproductive health specialists from all over the region in the latest abortion techniques.  They have also shared their expertise in how to make use of the legal exceptions in various law codes to increase women’s options.  As Giselle Carino, an Argentinian activist in Fòs Feminista, noted: “Without a doubt, we learned from the Colombians.”

Although for large portions of its history Oriéntame managed to steer clear of police harassment, a spate of incidents in 1994 encouraged Dr. Villareal’s daughter Cristina, who was taking over directorship of the organization from her father, to reach out to feminist groups in order to unite with medical practitioners to try to change Colombia’s laws.  Cristina Villareal joined with others to form the coalition La Mesa por la Vida y la Salud de las Mujeres.  In 2006 the group’s efforts caused a broadening of legal exceptions in which abortion was permitted in Colombia, and full decriminalization through twenty-four weeks was achieved in late February of this year.

Oriéntame and its international training program continue to offer reproductive health services in Colombia, train physicians, midwives, and healers, and advise affiliates on the best ways to navigate legal pitfalls.  But, as feminist activists in Latin America know and their counterparts in the U.S. are finding out, it does not pay to be too complacent.  As Cristina Villareal warns, “This is a battle that is never completely won… You can’t let your guard down.”

Sources for direct quotes are February 21 and 23, 2022 New York Times articles by Julie Turkewitz.  Additional information can be found at https://orientame.org.co (Spanish) and https://orientame.org.co/en (English).