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How One Family Controls Latin America's Legal Abortions


The largest abortion-provider in Latin America is an organization almost no one has heard of, founded by a man few remember.

JOSHUA LANG: Jorge Villarreal was born in Columbia, and the story really begins with the passage of Roe v. Wade.

RATH: Joshua Lang writes about Villarreal in the latest issue of California Sunday magazine. In 1973, Jorge Villarreal had just finished his medical degree in obstetrics at the University of Pennsylvania. Access to abortion was big news. Lots of new clinics were opening in the U.S. But in Colombia, abortion was still completely illegal. Nonetheless, Villarreal returned home and set out to open his own clinic.

LANG: In Colombia at that time, abortion was highly stigmatized. And, you know, many women had abortions, but they did it in, you know, kind of back alley procedures. And there wasn't great standards, and so oftentimes, they'd end up very sick and in the hospital near death. And on top of being incredibly sick, the hospital staff looked down upon them as sort of moral filth. And so Jorge decided he needed to do something different.

RATH: So what did he do to get around the prohibition on abortion and open his clinic?

LANG: So yeah, abortion at that time in Colombia - so this is like the mid-'70s - was entirely illegal, even in the case of the woman's life, to have an elective abortion. And so what he did was, you know, he didn't have the freedom that at that time we had in the United States, Roe v. Wade had just passed. He kind of created a standalone clinic outside of the hospital. And he said OK, these women are dying. They're coming into the hospital bleeding to death. Maybe we can just get them out of the hospital - so in a place where they're more comfortable. And so that was kind of the wedge. That was the very beginning of what has become an international model.

RATH: Can you talk about that 'cause this grew from that one clinic pretty extraordinarily.

LANG: Yeah, so people around Latin America just began to hear about this. I mean, Jorge Villarreal, he was kind of a known professor. He had an international reputation. People came to see what he was doing. They actually flew into the clinic to see what he was doing and how he was doing it and how he was navigating the laws of his country. And so then they asked him, you know, could you help us?

RATH: Jorge Villarreal passed away some time ago, but you spent some time talking with his daughter, Cristina, who grew up around her father's work. And Colombia did change its abortion laws in 2006, partly as a result of lobbying by Villarreal. How has that changed the operation of the clinic in Bogota? Is it less controversial now?

LANG: You know, part of what's interesting about this story is when I first heard about this, you know, the Villarreal name and Orientame, you know, there was no Wikipedia article for them despite their huge international influence. You know, in 2006, abortion became legal in Colombia in cases of women's health - so physical and emotional health. And that's dramatically changed the landscape. But then there also seem to be these opposite movements in many places. Like Mexico City recently legalized abortion in many cases, and many of the other states in Mexico actually passed opposite laws making abortion entirely illegal. El Salvador still has laws that they've reaffirmed recently, that abortion is illegal even when it threatens the mother's life. And so overall, abortion in Latin America is an interesting question politically. But that's maybe why this article could even be written at this point, you know? It's 'cause the culture is beginning to shift slowly in Colombia.

RATH: You can read Joshua Lang's article about the family behind Latin America's largest abortion provider in this month's issue of California Sunday magazine. Joshua, thank you very much.

LANG: Thanks, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.