By Julia Symmes Cobb
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Eight judges from Colombia's constitutional court were evenly split on Thursday over whether abortion should be eliminated from the penal code, the coalition of pro-choice groups which brought the long-running lawsuit said.
Abortion was partially legalized in Colombia under a 2006 ruling that allows it in cases of rape, fatal fetal deformity, and health of the mother.
Pro-choice groups estimate that around 90% of abortions in the Andean country take place clandestinely.
A coalition of more than 90 pro-choice organizations, Causa Justa, brought the suit in 2020, saying prosecutions of women who sought or obtained abortions worsen stigma and scare potential patients, even in cases when one of the three legal conditions applies.
A possible ruling in favor of elimination from the penal code would not widen the circumstances in which women and girls can seek abortions, but it would immediately guarantee that no more people are imprisoned, Causa Justa has said.
A ruling on the suit had originally been expected late last year, but a ninth judge requested a recusal.
That recusal was granted on Thursday, Causa Justa said. The coalition later shared a list of how magistrates had voted and said the court agreed to appoint a new ninth judge for an eventual re-vote.
A spokesman for the court said it did not yet have official comment.
Some 350 women were convicted or sanctioned for abortions between the original 2006 ruling and mid-2019, including at least 80 girls under age 18, according to Causa Justa.
"The fact that abortion exists as a crime does not dissuade women from seeking an abortion, it just pushes them to seek clandestine and often unsafe abortions, putting their lives and health at risk," Catalina Martinez Coral, regional director of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said outside the court earlier on Thursday.
Anti-abortion groups and politicians in the broadly conservative country have urged justices to vote against elimination, saying abortion amounts to murder.
(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; additional reporting by Luisa Gonzalez; Editing by Leslie Adler)