BOGOTÁ, Colombia — In three years, Pamela Delgado has become one of the most prominent leaders in Colombia’s rapidly growing “pro-life” movement. She learned her protest skills from a US Christian group that believes life begins at conception –not birth– and abortion should be prohibited, even when medically recommended to save a woman’s life.
Delgado has organized seven anti-abortion protests, and has helped recruit and train dozens of other movement leaders. In Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, Delgado says her volunteer base has expanded from a dozen in 2015 to around 3,000 today. Her group estimates that nearly 3,500 more are volunteering elsewhere in the country.
Delgado credits a big part of her success to support from the Texas-based Christian group 40 Days for Life. The group teaches local volunteers like Delgado all around the world to host 40-day-long 24-hour protests outside of legal abortion clinics. (This week, Colombia’s Constitutional Court reaffirmed the existing regulations). Since 2011, the US-based group has taught its tactics in nine Latin American countries, including Argentina, Mexico and Brazil.
Women’s rights advocates and reproductive health care providers in Colombia told Univision News that the recent expansion of US-supported anti-choice groups is endangering women’s health, spreading misinformation and restricting access to safe and legal health services.
Abortion has been legal in Colombia since 2006 in three circumstances: rape, incest or when the mother’s life or health is at risk. But it remains difficult to access the procedure, especially for poor and rural women, because of ongoing social stigma, bureaucratic hurdles, doctors’ ability to refuse to provide care on moral grounds, and mounting attacks by US-supported anti-choice groups.
Delgado first heard about these groups in late 2014 from a church friend. After scouring the internet for more information, she says she was “moved” by 40 Days for Life’s religiously-inspired approach. So, she signed up to launch the group’s Colombia chapter.
Soon after, the father-daughter team of Matt Britton and Katherine O’Brien -- 40 Days for Life headquarters staff -- flew to Bogotá to personally meet the woman who would soon become a local star of their movement.
“They brought us t-shirts and it may sound silly, but it makes you feel like you’re part of a network, a family,” Delgado said.
Since then, the group has given her access to training programs and yearly international conferences, and connected her with their partners across the region.
In September 2015, Delgado hosted Colombia’s first ever 40 Days for Life protest, across the street from one of Bogotá’s biggest abortion providers, Oriéntame: a private organization that runs six reproductive health clinics in Colombia. The first protests in Bogotá only drew about a dozen to two dozen protestors at any given time, but the movement has since exploded across Colombia.
“The harassment of women was much more intense,” a representative from a legal abortion clinic in Bogotá, who asked not to be named, told Univision News, adding that this “obviously creates difficulty for our clinic to function.”
Often the presence of protesters can intimidate patients away from legal clinics and into clandestine ones where abortion is unregulated and insecure. Natalia Acevedo Guerrero of Profamilia, Colombia’s largest network of reproductive health clinics, said the protests are “restricting access to care” more broadly, preventing women from comfortably receiving other services like contraception and prenatal care.
Restrictive laws don’t stop abortion
Acevedo Guerrero and several other Colombian reproductive health experts suggest that a continuing lack of awareness of the law and a dearth of education on the subject have paved the way for groups like Delgado’s.
A decade after Colombia partially legalized abortion, only about half of Colombians were aware, according to the Colombian health ministry’s most recent national survey. Nonetheless, 65% of Colombians think it should be legal for women to choose to end a pregnancy.
Anti-choice groups have attempted to mount referendums to overturn the law, and protesters like Delgado are trying to shift public perception. Delgado believes that 40 Days for Life’s messaging, which pairs religious beliefs and conservative family values, has touched an emotional cord with both Catholics and Evangelicals, Christian faiths practiced by nearly 90% of Colombians.
“Colombia is a prayerful country, the people are very devoted and very pro-life, even though they don’t know anything about abortion,” Delgado says.
Delgado and other 40 Days for Life leaders across the region work closely with a network of “crisis pregnancy centers,” fake clinics funded by US groups that are focused on convincing women with unexpected pregnancies not to have abortions. Often, these centers share debunked medical misinformation, for example, that abortion increases the risk of everything from breast cancer to low self-esteem and depression.
Delgado likes to say that her campaigns “inject hope” into tragedy and create happy endings by “saving lives.” But not all lives are equal in her eyes. Every time she calls the women who choose abortion “murderers,” the typically dulcet tone of her voice shifts, dripping with venom.
When asked about the life-threatening dangers some women face when blocked from accessing legal abortion, she says: “It’s better to die without having killed someone. You’ll go to heaven. It’s the best end to your life.”