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DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Legalise Therapeutic Abortion, Say NGOs

Diógenes Pina

SANTO DOMINGO, Sep 10 2007 (IPS) - A proposal by a coalition of civil society groups to make therapeutic abortion legal in the Dominican Republic has prompted heavy pressure on Congress from the Catholic Church.

The penal code in this staunchly Catholic country makes abortion illegal under any circumstance, and provides for prison sentences of between six months and two years for those found guilty of using food, potions, medicines, treatments or any other method to cause an abortion.

The coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and associations of health professionals propose modifying the penal code to make abortion legal in cases in which a woman has become pregnant as a result of rape or incest, the fetus is deformed, or the pregnant woman’s life is at risk.

"The criminalisation of abortion does not solve the problem; it merely forces vulnerable women to put their lives at risk by undergoing illegal abortions," Sonia Galván, executive director of the non-governmental Colectiva Mujer y Salud (Woman and Health Collective), told IPS.

Galván said abortion "is a human rights issue" and that "it is an abuse to force a woman to carry a pregnancy that is caused by rape or incest, when it is she who must make the decision."

The Dominican medical association supports the legalisation of therapeutic abortion, pointing out that it is accepted in international treaties and by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

A legal adviser to the medical association, Ángel Veras, told IPS that "therapeutic abortion cannot be opposed on an ideological basis," and "laws cannot be written to please the interests of specific groups."

The proposal set forth by the Coalition for Modern Legislative Reforms, which groups dozens of civil society organisations, has run into staunch opposition from the Catholic Church, voiced by the archbishop of Santo Domingo, Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez.

Julio César Valentín of the governing Dominican Liberation Party, the president of the lower house of Congress, which is to debate the penal code reforms, said he rejected "pressure from any sector while the abortion question is being discussed."

Galván argued that "Instead of assuming a totalitarian position in the debate, the Church should listen to its faithful, because they are also affected."

An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 illegal abortions are practiced every year in this Caribbean island nation of nine million, according to unofficial sources.

The maternal mortality rate, which stood at 170 per 100,000 live births in 1991, has fallen to 132 per 100,000. But illegal abortions remain one of the main causes of maternal deaths.

The penal code reforms were approved by Congress last year, but President Leonel Fernández sent the amended code back to the legislature because it did not punish the commercial sexual exploitation of minors.

Congress has held two public hearings and is planning a third, to hear different viewpoints and receive documents from a broad range of sectors on the modifications to be introduced in the penal code on issues like abortion.

"We are now processing all of the information that has been presented to us, and after the last hearing has been held, in which all of the aspects that people are interested in will be discussed, the parliamentary commission will reach a decision and present its report to the legislature," Deputy José Ricardo Taveras told IPS.

The lawmaker, who belongs to the conservative National Progressive Force, a government ally, presides over the commission that is studying the proposed reforms. He said "the conditions are in place" for introducing the final report on the floor in the lower house of Congress by Oct. 15.

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