Nicaraguan Law Plays Havoc with Reproductive Rights

By Melissa Sandgren

In Leon, Nicaragua, a 27 year-old woman is being denied life saving cancer treatment because she is 10-weeks pregnant. Under Nicaragua’s strict abortion ban, the chemotherapy might harm her developing fetus, so Amalia is forced to sacrifice care.

The draconian abortion ban includes cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is in danger. Under Nicaragua's revised Penal Code from July 2008, no doctor can treat Amalia without the threat of imprisonment, and no women or girl can seek an abortion without the same threat. Three other countries in Latin America – Chile, Columbia and El Salvador – have similar bans against reproductive rights. Not surprisingly, Chile and Columbia also have some of the highest abortion rates in Latin America, with rates at one woman in 20, and one woman in 30, respectively.

Women’s groups and human rights advocates have vehemently opposed the case against Amalia. While her sister has appealed to local and international media, asking for the recognition of her sister’s right to life, her case continues to be denied. The response from the Medical Association is that doctors must, “luchar por las dos vidas por igual," or “fight equally for both lives”.

Perhaps even more unsettling is the recent survey out of Amnesty International on rape victims in Nicaragua. Similar to findings from the Guttmacher Institute and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Amnesty finds the absolute ban on abortions leads a higher rate in maternal mortality. The Amnesty report also finds, “the absolute ban on abortions particularly affects young girls who are victims of rape or incest.” “According to a survey of media reports between 2005 and 2007; 1,247 girls were reported in newspapers to have been raped or to have been the victims of incest in Nicaragua. Of these crimes, 198 were reported to have resulted in pregnancy. The overwhelming majority of the girls made pregnant as a result of rape or incest (172 of the 198) were between 10 and 14 years old.”

It's difficult to understand how the Nicaraguan government condones this treatment of women and girls. Many cite President Ortega's alliance with the Catholic Church during his bid for re-election in 2006 as the foundation to these harsh reproductive sanctions. With Amalia, her individuals rights were essentially stripped when she became pregnant.

However, some positive movements are coming out of Latin America. One is the growing unrest from women’s rights groups advocating for greater freedom and control. For example, on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day this week, our Nicaraguan grantee Red de Mujeres Contra la Violencia organized a parade to demand an end to impunity for violence against women. They organized thousands of male and female supporters to march though the streets demanding accountability and rights.

The second is the research coming from public health institutions in Latin America. A recent study from a Chilean University found that when women were given access to birth control methods, education, regular visits and counseling, the abortion rate dropped by as much as 82 percent in some communities.

Latin America has some of the highest rates of abortions in the world, with an estimated 5,000 women dying annually from clandestine abortions. For more information, read:

- Alan Guttmacher Institute: An Overview of Clandestine Abortion in Latin America - International Planned Parenthood Federation: Documents and reports - Women’s eNews: Illegal Abortions Rampant in Latin America - AWID: Nicaragua's Abortion Ban Is Inhumane and Backward - Amnesty International: Governments urged to condemn Nicaragua abortion ban

Melissa Sandgren is communications consultant at the Global Fund for Women and a research assistant at the Maternal and Child Health Department in the School of Public Health at the University of California-Berkeley.


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