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NICARAGUA: Therapeutic Abortion Banned in Pre-Election Frenzy

José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, Oct 27 2006 (IPS) - Latin America is not the most liberal region in the world when it comes to abortion. But the decision by Nicaraguan legislators to hand down eight-year prison sentences to those who terminate a pregnancy to save a mother’s life has astounded doctors, feminists, activists, diplomats and government officials alike.

Even Nicaraguan minister of Health, Margarita Gurdián, came out against the criminalisation of therapeutic abortion, despite President Enrique Bolaños having asked this month for up to 30 years in prison for women and doctors who terminated risky pregnancies.

The legislature approved Thursday a bill to repeal Article 165 of the 1893 Criminal Code, which made therapeutic abortions legal. So now, anyone procuring or performing a therapeutic abortion could be punished with a four to eight-year prison term. The decision was taken in the heat of an agitated campaign for the Nov. 5 presidential elections.

“This is a return to the Middle Ages for women’s rights,” said activist Juana Jiménez of the Women’s Autonomous Movement (MAM), who is coordinator for the campaign to decriminalise therapeutic abortion.

The Criminal Code defined therapeutic abortion as assisted termination of pregnancy when the mother’s health was in danger, or she was at risk of psychological damage because her pregnancy was the result of rape, as certified by at least three doctors. According to MAM, between 800 and 1,000 therapeutic abortions are performed in Nicaragua every year.

“They bought 200,000 possible votes with the lives of more than three million Nicaraguan women,” Jiménez told IPS, referring to the 200,000 signatures presented to parliament in early October by representatives of the Catholic and evangelical churches, calling for the revocation of Article 165.

Jiménez announced that MAM will redouble its protests, appeal the law before higher courts and file an international suit against the state of Nicaragua, a Central American country of 5.4 million people, 75 percent of whom live in poverty.

According to Dr. Ana María Pizarro of the Nicaraguan Association of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, the law is “a crime against the poorest women and an open violation of universal human rights and of the constitution.”

In her opinion, the members of parliament, dominated by the rightwing governing Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) and the leftwing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), chose to bow to the demands of the Catholic and evangelical churches in a bid for their votes.

Four of the five parties taking part in the November elections, including the favourites, FSLN and PLC, declared themselves in favour of criminalising therapeutic abortions.

The law was approved by 52 votes in favour. Nine PLC lawmakers and one Christian Alternative legislator abstained, and the rest of the 92 members of the single-chamber parliament were absent.

“There was no politicking or vote-grabbing going on here. This was in response to the clamour of most Nicaraguan women, who want respect for life,” said PLC Deputy Wilfredo Navarro, a member of the parliamentary Justice Commission.

Sandinista Deputy Edwin Castro, the leader of the FSLN bench in the legislature, said “Politics has nothing to do with abortion. Here, a legal measure to protect life was taken, and there is no connection of any kind with electioneering.”

The session was marked by protests from civil society and women’s organisations. Several women tried to enter the building; they threw stones and bottles and pushed through the gates, but police officers shoved them out of the premises and blocked the entrance.

Norma Moreno, a leader of the Nicaraguan Coordination of Non-Governmental Organisations working with Children and Adolescents, said the debate should have been postponed until after the elections.

If signed into law by the president, the new legislation will lead to a rise in the maternal and infant mortality rates, and a possible flight of doctors to countries where they can practice medicine freely, Moreno told IPS.

The Pan American Health Organisation’s (PAHO) representative in Nicaragua, Patricio Rojas, said the maternal mortality rate in Nicaragua is 83.4 per 100,000 live births.

Rojas said that Nicaragua will fail to meet the two Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that call for a two-thirds reduction in infant mortality and a three-quarters reduction in maternal mortality between 1990 and 2015.

The MDGs were approved by the international community at the United Nations General Assembly in 2000, as a platform to fight inequality and poverty worldwide.

Maternal mortality has fallen by 46 percent in this country in the last 15 years, but only by 22 percent over the last decade, according to the Ministry of Health.

Every year about 144 women of reproductive age die in Nicaragua, not counting the high proportion of deaths that go unregistered, which may be as high as 50 percent.

Maternal mortality accounts for about four percent of all causes of deaths. More than 70 percent of maternal deaths take place in rural areas, and nearly half the deceased women are aged 20 to 34.

“The State is virtually forcing women to emigrate to countries where they can have abortions, or to secretly bury their daughters who die of botched backstreet abortions in their backyards,” said Georgina Muñoz, the national representative of the Civil Coordination umbrella group.

Among those who called for the legislative debate to be delayed was Rebeca Grynspan, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General and director of the U.N. Development Programme’s (UNDP) Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean. On a visit to Nicaragua, she said abortion is “a very delicate issue that must be discussed at the right time and in the right place, which is not likely to be during an election.”

The debate began on Aug. 10, when Edmundo Jarquín, the candidate of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), a break-away FSLN group, called for keeping article 165 of the Criminal Code on the books for pregnant women who face health risks.

The Catholic Church immediately lashed out at Jarquín’s statements, and began to lobby FSLN and PLC legislators to repeal the article and establish 20-year prison terms for women who undergo abortions and doctors who practice them.

Abortion is illegal throughout Latin America, with the exception of Cuba. However, a number of countries make exceptions if the mother’s life is at risk, the fetus is unviable, or the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.

The decision by the Nicaraguan parliament drew protests from Latin American medical associations, representatives of U.N. agencies, the European Union, the World Health Organisation, PAHO, Save the Children, the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch.

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