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NICARAGUA: Therapeutic Abortion Faces Pressure from the Right

Felipe Jaime

MEXICO CITY, Jul 26 2004 (IPS) - Therapeutic abortion has been legal for more than a century in Nicaragua. But heated parliamentary debate has erupted, spurred on by right-wing and religious groups seeking a ban.

The fuse was ignited by the case of Rosita, a nine-year-old Nicaraguan girl whose parents emigrated to Costa Rica in the early 1990s in search of a better life. She became pregnant in late 2003 after she was raped on a coffee plantation near the central Costa Rican city of Turrialba.

In Nicaragua, groups of “pro-life” activists and Roman Catholic Church leaders expressed their opposition to the child having an abortion, but the Women’s Network Against Violence and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) supported Rosita and her parents so that the situation could be resolved in accordance with the law on therapeutic abortion, as occurred in the end.

But some sectors within the government and radical right-wing groups were not happy with the outcome.

“A hundred year ago therapeutic abortion was established as an exception to the criminalisation of abortion, in cases in which the woman’s life is endangered,” Juana Jiménez, executive secretary of the Women’s Network Against Violence, told IPS in a telephone interview from Nicaragua.

In Rosita’s case, “medical assessments clearly indicated the risks, not only psychological but physical,” posed by her pregnancy, she said.

Nicaragua’s penal code allows for therapeutic abortions when they are deemed necessary on a sound scientific and medical basis, “with the involvement of at least three doctors, and consent from the woman’s husband or next of kin.”

“We have been talking to legislators about the need to preserve the (penal code) article that decriminalises therapeutic abortion, particularly when women’s lives are endangered,” said Jiménez.

By contrast, Deputy Jamileth Bonilla of the conservative ruling Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) told IPS that therapeutic abortion “should be made a criminal act.” She went on to say her party, which holds a majority in parliament, has decided to push for that legislative reform.

“We want to roll back” the present legislation on the matter, she said.

When dealing with cases like that of Rosita, Bonilla said “the culture of our country is still not prepared to allow therapeutic abortion in such circumstances, (and) the issue can be distorted and mishandled.”

Some church groups have gone too far in putting therapeutic abortion in the same category as other, currently illegal, forms of abortion, but “the Catholic Church as such” has not been party to this excess, she added.

“It’s a question of saving lives, and therapeutic abortion should not go against religious sentiment or belief, because the Church also wants to save lives,” said the lawmaker.

However, the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference – the highest Catholic body in the country – stated in a communiqué on Rosita’s case that therapeutic abortion is an “aberration,” and that keeping it legal implies a failure “to respect the most sacred thing God has given us: life.”

Abortion is an “abominable crime…even when it is disguised by pseudo-humanitarian extenuating circumstances when classifying it as therapeutic,” concluded a statement signed by the secretary general of the Conference, Bishop Abelardo Mata.

According to Jiménez, a member of the Independent Women’s Movement, making therapeutic abortion illegal due to pressure from the church would amount to “an attack on the lay nature of the State.”

It would also constitute “a very serious precedent for women,” and would put health practitioners in a difficult position, she said.

“Nicaragua’s Gynaecology and Obstetrics Association has expressed its concern,” and has stated that “the medical grounds for therapeutic abortion have been established, and that if this article were eliminated they would be in violation of the principle of saving lives – with the particularity that it would be women who would die, because it is we who have the biological capacity to procreate,” said the activist.

Of 200 cases of women dying of pregnancy-related causes in 2003, approximately 30 percent involved abortions, while “31 deaths could have been avoided through therapeutic abortions,” she said.

The international NGO Ipas – which works for the sexual and reproductive rights of women worldwide – estimates that around 32,000 abortions are carried out and some 5,500 women seek medical services for abortion-related complications in Nicaragua every year.

“Clandestine abortion is a problem in Nicaragua as it is in most of Latin America, and as long as States and governments fail to put public health schemes in place, especially with respect to providing family planning information and contraception, unwanted pregnancies will continue to cause the death of many women,” said Jiménez.

Violeta Delgado, the head of the Civil Coordinator for Emergency and Reconstruction (CCER), told IPS that criminalising therapeutic abortion “would carry great class-related moral-religious weight, because obviously those mainly affected by a decision of this type would be poor women reliant on public health services.”

The possibility of taking the issue before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights should be considered, she added, because criminalising therapeutic abortion “would amount to a violation of the right to life.”

“It would mean the life of a woman is second-class, as it is in many Islamic countries,” said Delgado.

This would especially affect women living in poverty – between 40 and 60 percent of Nicaraguan women depending on the source.

Womens’ organisations like the Network of Violence Against Women and CCER have announced campaigns and awareness-raising workshops for August, when therapeutic abortion will again come up for parliamentary debate.

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