Two Colombian Reproductive Rights Advocates Among TIME’s Most Influential People

Reproductive Rights Colombians TIME BELatina Latinx
Images courtesy of Causa Justa/BELatina.

“I know what it takes to move a country. It’s hard, and you have to have infinite stamina and belief, and passionate commitment. And these two women have it in spades,” wrote Ailbhe Smyth, an Irish activist that campaigned to repeal Ireland’s strict ban on abortion, in her outline of the reasons reproductive rights advocates Ana Cristina Cristina González Vélez and Cristina Villarreal Velásquez were included in TIME’s most influential people list.

Smyth explained how, in order to finally make abortion legal in Colombia, despite the influence of the country’s religious right, Ana Cristina González Vélez and Cristina Villarreal Velásquez had to think strategically from the beginning.

“They went straight to the place that was the obstacle, the Constitutional Court. They also knew the importance of having a broad-based social movement galvanizing women across the country to wear green handkerchiefs (which have become symbolic across the region of support for reproductive rights) and energetically claim their rights,” the activist wrote.

Ana Cristina González, born in Medellín, is a physician and doctor in bioethics. She has been an activist, teacher, and expert in health, sexual and reproductive rights, and gender equality. González has worked for multiple organizations such as the World Health Organization, UNFPA, UNDP, UN Women, and ECLAC. She has also been a member of the Articulación Feminista Mercosur, founder of the Grupo Médico por el Derecho a Decidir in Colombia and co-founder of La Mesa por la Vida.

Cristina Villareal is a psychologist and founder of Oriéntame, the first organization in Colombia to provide legal abortion and reproductive rights counseling in the country. She has also created several other organizations in favor of this cause, such as CLACAI, the Latin American Consortium against unsafe abortion. She was a member of the boards of directors of the NAF and the Guttmacher Institute, the Foundation for the Right to Die with Dignity, and the advisory committee of Global Doctors for Choice in Latin America. 

Together, González and Villareal are founders of the Causa Justa Movement, a movement in favor of the decriminalization of abortion, which found its first achievement in 2006, when the Constitutional Court enabled three situations for the practice of legal abortion: health grounds, sexual violence grounds, and fetal malformation grounds, as explained by the organization Oriéntame.

This advance brought much strength to the movement. It gave life to the collective La Mesa por la Vida y la Salud de las Mujeres, in an effort from different sectors of civil society to monitor compliance with the constitutional decision, as well as to accompany people in cases in which the institutions of the health system imposed barriers to the free exercise of their reproductive rights.

Subsequently, the two Colombians realized that decriminalization was insufficient, while health, judicial and administrative professionals in health institutions were denying services on the grounds of the existence of the crime.

González and Villareal then led the movement that sought to eliminate the crime of abortion and provide technical evidence that would give society the tools to understand the importance of guaranteeing reproductive autonomy.

Until February 21, 2022, more than 500 days after the lawsuit was filed, the Constitutional Court issued a landmark ruling freeing abortion during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. After the 24th week, it remains legal under the grounds decriminalized in 2006.

This is an unprecedented decision in reproductive rights in Latin America because it is a conquest that (although it does not eliminate the crime) creates a wide margin so that most people who need an abortion can exercise their right in freedom and without excuses, Oriéntame continued. It is the biggest deadline among the countries that have changed this century’s legal framework. In the continent, only Canada has broader laws to protect reproductive autonomy.

“It is remarkable what Ana Cristina and Cristina did. It gives us hope for the future of access in the U.S., despite what is happening with Roe v. Wade,” Smyth continued in her introduction. “It empowers women in Poland —where abortion laws are among the strictest in Europe— to say, ‘OK, our countries are different, but if they can do it, we can pick ourselves up and have another try.’ That sense of international solidarity is crucial because there are so many countries where it is difficult for women to even stand up and fight.”