Nicaragua abortion ban ‘cruel and inhuman disgrace’

Nicaraguan women hold up signs shaped like the female form during a 2008 protest against the anti-abortion law.
Nicaragua’s total ban on abortion is a "cruel, inhuman disgrace" that’s led to the rise in maternal deaths, human rights organization Amnesty International has said.

The Central American country’s revised penal code on abortion came into force in July 2008 and criminalizes all forms of abortion regardless of the circumstances, even in cases of rape or incest, a deformed fetus, or when the mother’s life is in danger. Amnesty’s researchers visited the country on a fact-finding mission to assess the impact on the lives of women in Nicaragua. The findings are detailed in the report issued Monday, titled: “The total abortion ban in Nicaragua: Women’s lives and health endangered, medical professionals criminalized.” Amnesty International describes the total ban on therapeutic abortion — carried out to protect the health of the mother — as “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” “Nicaragua’s ban on therapeutic abortion is a disgrace,” Amnesty International’s Executive Deputy Secretary General Kate Gilmore said at a media briefing in Mexico City to launch the report. “It is a human rights scandal that ridicules medical science and distorts the law into a weapon against the provision of essential medical care to pregnant girls and women,” she added.

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Gilmore was the head of a group of Amnesty activists who visited Nicaragua, to gather the personal accounts of doctors and women. Nicaragua hands out prison sentences for girls and women who seek an abortion and for doctors and nurses who provide services linked with abortion. Amnesty reports that doctors and nurses are frightened to treat a pregnant woman or girl for illnesses such as cancer, malaria, HIV/AIDS or cardiac emergencies where treatment could cause injury or death to the fetus. One health worker told Amnesty researchers that one woman who was admitted to hospital following a miscarriage was so terrified of being prosecuted for abortion that she asked doctors not to treat her in case any treatment was seen as an intentional termination of pregnancy. “She told the health worker that she was concerned that her neighbor, who knew she was pregnant, might report her for having an abortion,” the report said. “There’s only one way to describe what we have seen in Nicaragua: sheer horror. Children are being compelled to bear children. Pregnant women are being denied essential – including life-saving – medical care,” said Gilmore. According to official figures cited in the Amnesty report, in the first five months of 2009, 33 girls and women died from pregnancy and birth-related complications, compared to 20 in the same period last year. Before the law was changed therapeutic abortion had been recognized as a necessary procedure in Nicaragua for more than 100 years, Amnesty said. However, President Daniel Ortega of the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) backed the law banning abortion to win crucial conservative Roman Catholic support in the January 2007 elections, Amnesty said. A call from CNN to the country’s health ministry was not immediately returned. Three years ago when the ban was first signed into law, the BBC reported that a statement on presidency’s Web site said the new legislation would help protect the right to life enshrined in the Nicaraguan constitution. The statement said abortion “allowed the daily execution of innocent children in their mother’s womb, in open violation of the Constitution which protected the unborn child”, the BBC reported. Nicaragua is among only a few countries in the world where abortion is illegal regardless of any circumstances. Others in Latin America include Chile, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. Malta and the Philippines also have a total ban on abortion. “The revision of the penal code is a retrogressive measure under international law and places Nicaragua at odds with proven public health policy,” says the Amnesty report. In rape cases reported to the police in Nicaragua, half of the female victims are under 18 and 16 percent become pregnant. Between 1999 and 2005, an average of around 7,000 women and girls were admitted annually to hospitals in Nicaragua for health complications that ended in abortion or miscarriage, says the report.