Abortion ruling polarizes Colombia

The debate over abortion in heavily Roman Catholic Colombia raged Thursday following a court ruling that allows for the procedure in certain cases, with one Cardinal threatening to excommunicate women who undergo the procedure.

"We are convinced that the court made a mistake," Bishop Hector Gutierrez told The Associated Press, explaining the position of the Catholic Church. "What it did was legalize a crime."

Cardinal Pedro Rubiano warned that "those who commit the crime, the sin of abortion, will be excommunicated immediately."

Pro-choice activists, however, said late Wednesday's ruling was a victory for reproductive rights. It allows abortions in cases of incest or rape, if the woman's life is endangered or if the fetus is so deformed that it would be unable to live outside the mother's womb.

"We are happy," said Monica Roa, a women's rights activist who argued in the court for a broad legalization of abortion, "celebrating together with women and feminists, doctors, academics and the people who have worked for years on the lawsuit so we would be successful before the court and win over public opinion."

The landmark 5-3 ruling overturned a complete ban on abortion that punished women who have the procedure with up to four years in jail. Chile and El Salvador are the only other countries in Latin America to maintain a total ban.

Abortion now threatens to become a political issue as this largely traditional Latin American country prepares to vote for its next president May 28.

Carlos Gaviria, the candidate for the left-wing Alternative Democratic Pole, praised the ruling. President Alvaro Uribe, who is favored in his bid for re-election did not immediately comment on the decision but has opposed abortion in the past.

The court's ruling also prompted government officials to scramble to figure out which entity should oversee abortions.

"We still don't know who should be providing the regulation," said Social Protection Minister Diego Palacio.

The president of Colombia's medical ethics tribunal, Juan Mendoza, said doctors could refuse to perform abortions "on the grounds of personal beliefs."

An earlier lawsuit to legalize abortion was filed in April 2005, but was rejected by the court based on errors in the petition.

Currently, 24 percent of all pregnancies in Colombia are terminated by abortion, according to the advocacy group Women's Link Worldwide. Nearly 30 percent of women who undergo the procedure suffer complications, and unsafe abortions are the third leading cause of maternal mortality, the group said in a statement Wednesday, reports AP.

O.Ch.