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NICARAGUA: Therapeutic Abortion Ban a "Disgrace" Says Rights Group

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Jul 27 2009 (IPS) - "What happened to me shattered my dreams, my hopes – I wanted to be someone who worked outside the home but I spend all day at home looking after the baby…I can’t even sleep and I feel very unsafe, many of my days are a nightmare, it’s very hard to carry on and I feel very sad and very tired," said "M", who was raped at age 17 by a relative.

Even though she was a victim of incest and rape, "M", who spoke with representatives of Amnesty International on their visit to Nicaragua last week, was unable to abort the pregnancy because of the ban on "therapeutic abortion" in place in this Central American country, one of the poorest in the hemisphere, since 2008.

The Amnesty report issued on Monday, "The total abortion ban in Nicaragua: Women's lives and health endangered, medical professionals criminalised", concludes that the policy has led to a rise in maternal mortality and has put pregnant women of all ages at risk.

"Nicaragua’s ban on therapeutic abortion is a disgrace," Amnesty International’s Executive Deputy Secretary General Kate Gilmore said at a news briefing held Monday in Mexico City to present the report.

"It is a human rights scandal that ridicules medical science and distorts the law into a weapon against the provision of essential medical care to pregnant girls and women," the Australian sociologist added.

Amnesty International describes the total ban on abortion in Nicaragua, even in cases of rape or incest, a deformed fetus, or when the mother's life is in danger, as "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."

"There’s only one way to describe what we have seen in Nicaragua: sheer horror. Children are being compelled to bear children. Pregnant women are being denied essential – including life-saving – medical care," said Gilmore.

"What alternatives is this government offering a 10-year-old pregnant as a result of rape? And to a cancer sufferer who is denied life-saving treatment just because she is pregnant, while she has other children waiting at home?"

In the first five months of this year, 33 girls and women died from pregnancy and birth-related complications, compared to 20 in the same period last year, according to official figures cited by the report.

President Daniel Ortega of the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) backed the law banning abortion to win conservative votes in the elections that brought him to power in January 2007.

Lobbied by Roman Catholic Church leaders and conservative evangelical pastors, on Oct. 26, 2006 the Nicaraguan parliament approved the draft law to revoke article 165 of the criminal code, which had permitted abortion for medical reasons since 1893.

Nicaragua thus became one of the few countries in the world where abortion is illegal under all circumstances, joining Chile, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic in Latin America, and Malta and the Philippines in the rest of the world. As Amnesty points out, only three percent of the world’s countries have such absolute bans.

"The revision of the penal code is a retrogressive measure under international law and places Nicaragua at odds with proven public health policy," says the Amnesty report.

In rape cases reported to the police in Nicaragua, half of the female victims are under 18 and 16 percent become pregnant.

Between 1999 and 2005, an average of around 7,000 women and girls were admitted annually to hospitals in Nicaragua for health complications that ended in abortion or miscarriage, says the report.

Gilmore headed the group of Amnesty activists who visited Nicaragua, where they gathered the personal accounts of doctors and women affected by the law.

The delegation failed in its attempts to meet with President Ortega or the government's Institute for Women, although it did meet with Health Minister Guillermo González.

"We are facing political persecution. We are under a criminal investigation since October 2007," Juanita Jiménez, a member of the Autonomous Women's Movement of Nicaragua, told IPS at the presentation of the report.

The health and reproductive care activist is one of nine women facing criminal charges in connection with the abortion undergone by a nine-year-old girl who was raped by her stepfather in 2003.

The case of "Rosita," who also contracted two sexually transmitted diseases, made international headlines. With the assistance of local and international human rights and women's groups, she was able to have an abortion, despite the resistance of conservative sectors in Nicaragua.

"The government is trying to intimidate human rights defenders and groups," said Jiménez.

Amnesty decided to present the report in the Mexican capital because abortion has been legal in the city since April 2007. Since the municipal law was passed, 23,500 women have had abortions in Mexico City.

The United Nations Human Rights Council, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the U.N. Committee against Torture (CAT) have all stated that Nicaragua's ban on abortion under all circumstances is a violation of international treaties to which the country is a signatory

"The criminalisation of abortion places Nicaraguan health professionals in legal jeopardy. It obliges them to act unethically and deny treatment which would have ensured the best possible outcome for their patients. It forces them to risk imprisonment if they act in accordance with official procedures and best practice protocols to end a pregnancy which poses a risk to the life or health of a woman or girl," says the Amnesty report.

The New York-based rights watchdog urged the Nicaraguan government and legislature to immediately overturn the ban on therapeutic abortion, guarantee access to safe abortion for rape victims or pregnant women whose health or lives are at risk, and protect the right to freedom of speech for those who speak out against the anti-abortion law.

A legal battle is playing out in the Supreme Court, which will have the last word on the issue. "We don't know what will happen in the Court, because it is under the influence of the governing party," said Jiménez.

Gilmore announced that Amnesty would file a petition before the Supreme Court to "remind" it that four U.N. bodies have declared the law illegal.

Amnesty launched a campaign Monday to promote maternal-child health and prevent maternal mortality in Nicaragua as part of its international "Demand Dignity" campaign.

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