Last November, Nicaragua became the third country in the world, after Chile and El Salvador, to criminalize all abortions. There are no exceptions; not for rape, not for incest, not for threats to the life of the mother.
So far, this law has resulted in the deaths of at least 82 women. Rory Carroll reports for The Guardian:
Abortion has long been illegal in Nicaragua but there had been exceptions for “therapeutic” reasons if three doctors agreed there was a risk to the woman’s life. Those exceptions were no longer necessary, said the Nicaraguan Pro-Life Association, because medical advances obviated the need to terminate pregnancies. “The conditions that justified therapeutic abortion now have medical solutions,” says a spokesman. Pope Benedict XVI welcomed the ban but added that women should not suffer or die as a result. “In this regard, it is essential to increase the assistance of the state and of society itself to women who have serious problems during pregnancy.”
The “assistance” the state offers is to let women die. The article focuses on a young woman named María de Jesús González who was denied medical help for an ectopic pregnancy. These occur when the fertlized egg implants somewhere other than in the uturus, usually the fallopian tube. Ectopic pregnancies occur from 1 in every 40 to 1 in every 100 pregnancies. Ectopic pregnancies have no chance of ending in a live birth. Eventually the growing fetus will cause an internal rupture in the mother, leading to bleeding, shock, and death. The developing cells must be removed to save the mother’s life.
González was told at the hospital that any doctor who terminated her pregnancy would face two to three years in jail and she, for consenting, would face one to two years. … What González did next was – when you understand what life in Nicaragua is like these days – utterly rational. She walked out of the hospital, past the obstetrics and gynaecological ward, past the clinics and pharmacies lining the avenues, packed her bag, kissed her aunts goodbye, and caught a bus back to her village. She summoned two neighbouring women – traditional healers – and requested that they terminate the pregnancy in her shack. Without anaesthetic or proper instruments it was more akin to mutilation than surgery, but González insisted. The haemhorraging was intense, and the agony can only be imagined. It was in vain. Maria died. “We heard there was a lot of blood, a lot of pain,” says Esperanza Zeledon, 52, one of the Managua aunts.
According to the Nicaraguan health ministry it would have been legal for the doctors to remove the embryo growing in González.
But such is the climate of fear and confusion that the protocols are widely ignored and misunderstood. The doctors who turned González away from the hospital in Managua thought it was illegal, as did medical staff the Guardian interviewed in Ocotal, González’s home town.
“The ban has people frightened. You could lose everything – that’s the first thing on your mind,” says Dr Arguello, a leading critic of the ban. So far there have been no prosecutions but many doctors are unwilling to take the risk on behalf of women who are often poor, uneducated and from a lower social class.
No one knows how many other women have died.
The Pope seemed to acknowledge an increased risk to women’s health but Nicaragua’s government has made no formal study of the law’s impact. Women’s rights organisations say their 82 documented deaths are the tip of the iceberg. The Pan-American Health Organisation estimates one woman per day suffers from an ectopic pregnancy, and that every two days a woman suffers a miscarriage from a molar pregnancy. That adds up to hundreds of obstetric emergencies per year.
Human Rights Watch, in a recent report titled Over Their Dead Bodies, cited one woman who urgently needed medical help, but was left untreated at a public hospital for two days because the foetus was still alive and so a therapeutic abortion would be illegal. Eventually she expelled the foetus on her own. “By then she was already in septic shock and died five days later,” said the doctor.
The Catholic News Agency reports that last month Pope Benedict XVI praised Nicaragua for its policies “respecting” human life.
During his remarks the Pope praised Nicaragua for “the position it takes on social questions in the international arena, especially as regards the theme of life, and in the face of no small amount of domestic and international pressure.”
The Holy Father said it was very “positive that last year the national assembly approved the revocation of therapeutic abortion,” and he affirmed the “need to increase the aid that state and society provide to women who have serious problems during pregnancy.”
American “pro life” organizations like Concerned Women for America also support the Nicaraguan abortion ban.
Shortly after the law was passed in November 2006, N.C. Aizenman wrote for the Washington Post:
Jazmina Bojorge arrived at Managua’s Fernando Vélez Paiz Hospital on a Tuesday evening, nearly five months pregnant and racked with fever and abdominal pain. By the following Thursday morning, both the pretty 18-year-old and the female fetus in her womb were dead.
The mystery of what happened during the intervening 36 hours might not ordinarily have catapulted Bojorge into the headlines of a nation with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the Western Hemisphere.
But a week before her death on Nov. 2, Nicaragua’s legislature had voted to ban all abortions, eliminating long-standing exceptions for rape, malformation of the fetus and risk to the life or health of the mother. Now, outraged opponents of the legislation have declared Bojorge its first victim.
“It’s clear that fear of punishment kept the doctors from doing what they needed to do to save her — which was to abort the pregnancy immediately,” said Juanita Jiménez of the Women’s Autonomous Movement, an advocacy group that is leading the campaign to reverse the ban. “This is exactly what we warned would happen if this law was passed. We’ve been taken back to the Middle Ages.”
So-called “right to life” advocates in the U.S. will tell you categorically that “There is no such thing as an abortion to save the life of the mother.” “Life of the mother” is not a valid exception, they say.
Of course, if ever their own sorry carcasses were about to be opened up by a couple of “traditional healers” without anesthesia in a last-ditch effort to avoid death by internal rupture and hemorrhage they might feel a bit differently.