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Nicaragua's Abortion Ban Is Inhumane and Backward

4 years ago
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In a move that ought to raise eyebrows even among pro-life groups, the Nicaraguan government is denying cancer treatment to a woman because she is pregnant. This is only the latest outrage in a country that has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.
The case concerns a 27-year-old woman known as Amalia (not her real name) who has cancer that is suspected to have spread to her brain, lungs and breasts. But Nicaraguan authorities have withheld life-saving treatment from her because it could harm the fetus and violate the country's total ban on abortion.

The decision has ignited furious protests from relatives and campaigners who say that Amalia -- who has a 10-year-old daughter and is 10 weeks pregnant -- will die unless treated. Amnesty International has called on the Nicaraguan government to provide the urgent chemotherapy and radiotherapy that her doctors recommend. A government-run medical commission is expected to announce a decision on Monday.

Nicaragua has one of the most draconian abortion laws in the world. It is one of the few countries to prohibit abortion under any circumstances. Girls and women who seek an abortion -- as well as health professionals who provide health services associated with abortion -- face jail.

Needless to say, these restrictions have taken their toll. According to official figures, 33 girls and women died in pregnancy in 2009; the year before, 20 died. Amnesty International believes these figures are only a minimum, as the government itself has acknowledged that the number of maternal deaths is under-recorded.

Oh, and it gets worse. According to a survey of media reports between 2005 and 2007, 1,247 girls were reported in newspapers to have been raped or to 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 (172 of them) were between 10 and 14 years old.

Fun stuff.

Fortunately -- at least for those of us who are horrified by such statistics -- Nicaragua is an outlier. As I reported back in October, the trend has been toward an easing of restrictions on abortions worldwide. Even in Ireland -- which has an abortion law that is only slightly less severe (abortion is permitted when there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother) -- things may be changing. Ireland is currently awaiting a landmark ruling from the European Court of Human Rights on the case of three women who accuse the government of putting their health at risk by forcing them to travel abroad for terminations. This case may establish a new international precedent regarding abortion and human rights by enhancing protections for mothers.

But the Nicaraguan abortion ban isn't only a debacle on humanitarian grounds. It's an enormous setback for women's rights in this small country, once at the vanguard of women's liberation in Latin America. It's widely understood that Daniel Ortega, the two-time president of Nicaragua who is currently in power, signed onto this abortion ban as a paean to the country's powerful Catholic Church, which launched an aggressive campaign against abortion back in 2006 (the law was enacted in 2007).

Some of you will remember Ortega from the heady days of 1979. Then, he spearheaded a socialist revolution in Nicaragua, one which subsequently unleashed a civil war that ripped the country apart socially, economically and politically over the course of the next decade. (Thank you, Oliver North.)

Say what you will about the Sandinista Revolution -- and there's plenty negative to say about it -- but one of its signature achievements was to significantly elevate the power and position of women in what had traditionally been a very socially conservative Latin American country. In Ortega's first term as president (1985-1990), 31 percent of the executive positions and 27 percent of leadership positions were occupied by women. Not incidentally, he also supported a limited form of abortion rights.

I lived in Central America in the late 1980s and traveled to Nicaragua while the Sandinistas were still in power. One of my close friends at the time was a senior official in the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Like many other women I met there, she was incredibly proud that her country's government respected and promoted women's rights in a way not seen in that country -- or arguably on the continent -- before.

Sorry, but -- whatever you think about abortion -- this current law does not respect women's rights at the most fundamental level. Rather, it is a huge step backwards for women and girls in Nicaragua. It is also a huge betrayal of some of the more promising -- and one would hope, lasting -- legacies of early Sandinista rule.

Shame on you, Daniel Ortega.


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