The Power of Collective Action and the Feminist Movement in Colombia

In this important and personal piece, María Rodríguez contextualizes the groundbreaking decision by the Constitutional Court of Colombia legalizing abortion up to 24 weeks. In particular, the author draws attention to the significance of a country in the global south setting the progressive standard in terms of reproductive rights, in light of recent regressions elsewhere in the world. The author further highlights that this victory was only possible due to the sustained work of Causa Justa, a movement that brought together more than 100 women’s rights organizations and more than 130 feminist activists under the call for a just cause.
Image by Amalia Ricalde.

A landmark decision for abortion access

February 21, 2022 marks a “before-and-after for reproductive rights in Colombia and, more specifically, for the lives and fundamental rights of women, adolescents, girls and persons that can gestate in Colombia. On that day, the Constitutional Court of Colombia rendered a landmark decision (Judgement C-055-22) establishing that abortion will no longer constitute a crime during the first 24 weeks of gestation. In other words, up to 24 weeks of gestation, women in Colombia can now access abortion services on request legally, freely and without fear of criminal prosecution. The Court also stated that the three exceptions (termed “causales” in Spanish) established in its 2006 landmark decision (Judgment C-355-06), which constituted the applicable legal framework to abortion services until February 21, 2022, would continue to apply after the 24-week gestational limit. This means that after 24 weeks of gestation women in Colombia will still have the option of requesting an abortion when: (i) the pregnancy constitutes a risk to the life or health of the woman; (ii) there is a serious fetal malformation making inviable life outside the womb; and (iii) the pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or forced insemination (Judgement C-355-06’s “causales”).

Judgement C-055-22 (not yet public, at the time of writing) comes as a result of the action of unconstitutionality presented on September 16th, 2020 by the feminist movement and coalition Causa Justa (Just Cause). The lawsuit – which included detailed arguments as to why the crime of abortion was discriminatory, unjust, infective, disproportionate and stigmatizing – sought the total elimination of the crime of abortion from the Criminal Code. While Judgement C-055-22 did not fully decriminalize abortion, and thus in the words of Ana Cristina Gonzáles, Causa Justa’s founder and one of the movement’s leaders, “the Court let a historic opportunity pass…” (“Causa Justa: Logramos un fallo histórico” at 16:03), the Court did take a historic and progressive step for the protection of women and girls’ fundamental rights to life, dignity, autonomy, equality and full citizenship.

Colombia: a pioneer for abortion access

In Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), a region with some of the most restrictive abortion laws, Colombia is now the country with the most favourable normative framework for abortion access. This is so even after the important victories for reproductive rights achieved in Argentina, where, in December 2020, Congress passed Law No. 27610 rendering abortion on request legal up to 14 weeks of gestation, and in Mexico, where, in September 2021, the Supreme Court of Justice rendered a landmark decision establishing that the criminalization of abortion in the “early stages” of pregnancy was unconstitutional.[1] In other words, in comparison to other countries in LAC, Colombia is the only country in the region to allow abortion on request up to 24 weeks and, additionally, now stands as one of the most progressive countries for abortion access in the world.

The fact that now women, girls, and persons that can gestate in Colombia have this expansive right feels extremely momentous for two main reasons. On the one hand, Colombia is a country marked by vast income and social inequalities that are exacerbated along the intersectional axes of race, rurality, indigenous status, and others. This context means that access to health services is unequitable, and coupled with the high rates of sexual violence, many women and girls are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. From 2020 to 2021, pregnancies in girls under 14 increased 19.4% nation-wide, with the highest fertility rates of this same age group found in the regions of Chocó y Vichada, some of the poorest regions of Colombia. The pregnancies of girls under 14 are, under the Criminal Code, the result of a rape (Article 208) which means that legally, these girls could have accessed an abortion under the “causales” of Judgement C-355-06. Against this dire backdrop, removing the threat of criminal prosecution for abortion access, at least during the first 24 weeks of gestion, and thus also the barriers and stigma created by the existence of the crime of abortion, was urgent and necessary, especially considering the disproportionate impacts that these barriers have on girls, adolescents, migrant and rural women and the LGTBQ community.

On the other hand, as Catalina Martínez, a leader and spokesperson of Causa Justa, said, Judgment C-055-22 is a historic decision that will be studied by academics and constitutional courts around the world and which will substantially impact the reproductive rights movement globally (“Causa Justa: Logramos un fallo histórico” at 22:15-22:54). The fact that such a progressive decision is coming “from the Global South, from Colombia”, as Martinez says, (ibid., at 22:55-22:59) is indeed incredibly significant because in a world where progressive standards are usually set by the Global North – or a world where we have been used to looking at the developments of the Global North for guidance - the fact that a country from the Global South is now setting the bar high with some of the most expansive standards for abortion is radical and a turning point. Especially so considering that, as Martinez has also pointed out, while Colombia is expanding protections for abortion access, the emblematic Roe v. Wade precedent that guaranteed the right to abortion in the United States is currently at risk.

The ground-breaking Judgement C-055-022 is thus not only a decision that will contribute to the fields of international human rights and comparative constitutional law, but it is also a precedent that will serve to challenge the asymmetric global power dynamics that have characterized the development of human rights standards. And that is really powerful. Echoing Professor Eslava, it is by “[r]eflecting from and with the South, […that we can] broaden our epistemological registers…” (at p. 4) and, I would thus say, broaden our minds and better our lives. It is in fact past due time to look at the Global South too for inspiration and guidance.

The power of the feminist call to action for a Just Cause

But, how did Colombia go from a restrictive framework that criminalized abortion except in three circumstances to being at the avant-garde of reproductive rights globally?

It was possible because of the sustained, collaborative, forward-thinking feminist work of Causa Justa; a movement that brought together more than 100 women’s rights organizations and more than 130 feminist activists under the call for a just cause. What was the cause? To change the narrative about abortion and work for its legal and social decriminalization.

While Judgement C-055-22 follows the Green Wave that is cresting over LAC (see also), Causa Justa’s movement was very unique in its tactics and unifying force. Causa Justa dared to dream out loud of a country where abortion would not be a crime: something that for many seemed impossible, at the time, and for many more in LAC is still a faraway possibility, but now nonetheless a dream. To advance this vision, they implemented a combination of creative and well thought-out strategies: they prepared more than 90 evidence-based arguments that supported all their propositions; they carefully-crafted an extensive social media campaign (also), including a reggaeton song, that galvanized whole generations of adolescents and young women; and they worked relentlessly to position – over two years – this just cause in the media and public discourse (also: “Aborto: derecho y delito en Colombia” at 12:57), adapting their pedagogy and methodology to the different audiences.

Muchas gracias, Causa Justa

I wrote this piece because the decision of Colombia’s Constitutional Court is historic, and also because I feel an immense sense of gratitude to Causa Justa and for the social movement they catalyzed in Colombia. Even though the implementation of Judgment C-055-22, which has immediate effects, presents its own challenges – particularly regarding the misinformation about what the decision entails – Causa Justa already made abortion on request a right in Colombia, a country heavily influenced by religious dogma and marked by patriarchal norms. Perhaps more significantly, they changed the narrative around abortion and inspired whole generations (because the movement is intergenerational) to dream and seek a country where no other woman or girl will have motherhood be imposed on them.

What Causa Justa achieved in two years of unrelenting work was in no way an easy task, and for that their work is praiseworthy and remarkable. Additionally,

it is a source of hope for the country and the region and more crucially a testament of the power of feminism, of collective action, of evidence-based arguments, of perseverance, and of sorority. Never before had I been more certain that those are the tactics that can not only combat misinformation, demagogy, misogyny and the patriarchy, but are also needed to create the conditions for social change and solidarity to emerge from the bottom-up. So, thank you Causa Justa.


[1] Since Mexico is a federal country, each state can regulate abortion differently. However, decisions of the Supreme Court of Justice of Mexico with a majority of 8 votes or more create direct obligations on all lower courts and now juges from all states in Mexico are bound by this precedent. See Suprema Corte de Justicia, Press Release No. 271/2021, “Suprema Corte Declara Inconstitucional La Criminalización Total Del Aborto” (7 september 2021) online: Suprema Corte de Justicia ; Furthermore, “[t]he decision impose[s] positive obligations on all states in Mexico to fulfill this right to abortion, including by providing free abortion services within an undefined “short period” of time in early pregnancy [and [t]he Court also noted that all states in Mexico must recognize this constitutional right for all people who have the capacity to become pregnant, regardless of gender”. See Center for Reproductive Rights, The World’s Abortion Law, Details on Mexico, online: Center for Reproductive Rights

A young lightskin woman with her black hair tied in the back. She is smiling and wearing a patterned blazer María Rodríguez is a feminist human rights lawyer with extensive experience in international human rights litigation and advocacy. Her work has focused on the protection of women and girls' fundamental rights, particularly against sexual violence and the  denial of sexual and reproductive health services. María is currently an LL.M candidate at McGill University Faculty of Law, where she previously obtained her B.C.L / LL.B, (2016), and she is a fellow of the McGill Research Group on Health and Law.

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