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RIGHTS: Nicaragua Refuses to Discuss Therapeutic Abortion

José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, Feb 15 2010 (IPS) - Nicaragua slammed the door on any possible debate on the restitution of therapeutic abortion – performed to save the life of the pregnant woman – despite demands that it do so voiced during a United Nations review of human rights in the country.

Under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) system, the U.N. Human Rights Council examines the human rights record of each member state every four years. The seventh session of the Council's UPR is taking place Feb. 8-19 in Geneva, Switzerland, and includes Nicaragua.

At last week's review on this Central American country, the Human Rights Council issued a report urging Nicaragua to strengthen protection for girls and women against domestic and sexual violence, by providing shelters for example, and modify the country's legislation to bring it into line with international standards.

The government accepted 68 of the recommendations set forth in the Periodic Review and agreed to study 41 others by late June, when the national UPR report will be formally adopted by the Human Rights Council.

But when the Nicaraguan government submitted its own report to the 47 countries sitting on the Council, it ruled out the restitution of therapeutic abortion, which is only banned in a few countries around the world: Chile, El Salvador, Malta and the Philippines, besides Nicaragua.

Prominent human rights groups, medical associations, women's organisations and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called on Nicaragua to study the possibility of establishing exceptions to the ban on abortion, when the mother's life is in danger or in cases of incest or rape.

The OHCHR also expressed its concern over high levels of violence against women and harassment of journalists and human rights defenders in Nicaragua.

The Committee against Torture "was deeply concerned by the general prohibition of abortion in the Criminal Code, even in cases of rape, incest or apparently life-threatening pregnancies that in many cases are the direct result of crimes of gender violence," says the OHCHR in a compilation put together by a working group on the UPR.

Countries like Britain, Finland, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland called on the Nicaraguan government to consider making abortion legal in cases of rape, incest or risk to the pregnant woman's life.

The Nicaraguan delegation said it had "taken note" of the recommendations and observations, but refused to restore the right to therapeutic abortion.

The head of the Nicaraguan delegation, Interior Minister Ana Isabel Morales, said "the legal reforms and new provisions referring to abortion in Nicaragua are the result of the exercise of sovereignty in our country; this is not a religious issue.

"A majority of Nicaraguans believe the right to life of the unborn child is important, because it is a human being with the right to live. They also believe abortion is not an appropriate method of birth control," the minister said.

In October 2006, the Nicaraguan parliament passed a law revoking article 165 of the criminal code, which had permitted abortion for medical reasons since 1893. Women who undergo abortions or health professionals who practice them now risk prison terms of between four and eight years.

Criminal sanctions were even introduced for doctors or nurses who treat a pregnant woman for medical conditions such as cancer or cardiac emergencies when the treatment may hurt or kill the embryo or fetus.

The ban on abortion was adopted during the campaign for the elections that brought President Daniel Ortega to power in January 2007.

Ortega's left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) allied itself with the Catholic Church and the second-largest political force, the right-wing Liberal Constitutionalist Party, to make abortion illegal under all circumstances.

The Nicaraguan government's inflexible stance on the issue in Geneva drew protests from women's rights groups.

The vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and president of the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (CENIDH), Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, who flew to Geneva for the UPR, told IPS in Managua that she deplored "that the Sandinista government lied so much about the situation in the country."

Fátima Millón of the Managua-based Central American organisation Network of Women against Violence, said to IPS that the government should withdraw the report it submitted to the UPR because it was full of "false data and arguments."

Millón accused the government of delaying the administration of justice by postponing for over three years dozens of lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the total ban on abortion, brought by women's rights organisations, medical associations and human rights groups.

The Supreme Court has not yet handed down a ruling in any of the cases.

London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International reported that Nicaragua's ban on abortion particularly affects young girls who are victims of rape or incest.

"Nicaragua’s ban on abortion is the result of a shocking and draconian law that is compelling rape and incest victims to carry pregnancies to term and causing a rise in maternal deaths," said Widney Brown, senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty International. "U.N. member states should take this opportunity to hold Nicaragua to account for a law that violates women’s right to life, health and dignity."

According to a survey of media reports between 2005 and 2007, 1,247 girls were reported to have been the victims of rape or incest in Nicaragua. Of that total, 198 became pregnant as a result – the majority of whom (172) were between 10 and 14 years old.

Amnesty also found an increase in maternal deaths since the ban was introduced.

The maternal mortality rate in Nicaragua is 170 per 100,000 live births, compared to five per 100,000 in Sweden, Switzerland or Israel.

According to international rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW), nearly 40 percent of maternal deaths in rural areas involve girls under the age of 19, and the statistics show a steady rise in "deaths from indirect obstetric causes."

Four U.N. expert committees – the Committee against Torture, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women – have condemned the law and urged Nicaragua to revise it.

"Nicaragua's law criminalising abortion goes against the advice of four U.N. treaty bodies and fails to meet its obligations under international human rights laws," said Amnesty's Brown. "Nicaragua needs to repeal this law immediately and enact laws and policies that promote the rights of women and girls by ensuring their rights to health and life and to be free from violence, coercion and discrimination."

The Human Rights Council also called on Nicaragua – the second-poorest country in the western hemisphere, after Haiti – to improve the prison system, strengthen food security, protect journalists and human rights defenders, take measures to fight racism, and protect the rights of ethnic minorities, especially indigenous people.

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