Playing Politics with Women’s Lives in Nicaragua
November 29, 2006When Mirna Cunningham joined Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution more than 20 years ago, she did so in the hope of bringing health care, education and basic human rights to the nation's women, and especially to those in indigenous communities. Now Cunningham, a member of the Miskitu tribe and former minister of health, finds herself at odds with Daniel Ortega, the man who led that revolution, over Nicaragua's newly signed ban of nearly all abortions—a law that Ortega, a former Marxist turned Roman Catholic, has embraced. It's not as if Nicaragua had liberal abortion policies to begin with; for more than 100 years, abortion has been illegal in the Latin American nation. Before the ban was signed into law last week by outgoing President Enrique Bolanos, Nicaragua allowed exceptions only when her pregnancy threatened the life of a woman, or in instances of incest and other rape. Penalties for all other abortions carried prison sentences of up to six years for doctors and women who underwent the procedures. Restrictive abortion laws are common in Catholic majority Latin American countries, with the notable exception of Cuba. Even before the ban, the inaccessibility of contraceptives and the lack of legal abortions in Nicaragua contributed to maternal and infant mortality rates that were "among the highest in the region," according to Ipas, a non-governmental organization that advocates for reproductive rights. In Latin America, unsafe abortion causes 16 percent of all maternal deaths, according to the Pan American Health Organization. The Alan Guttmacher Institute puts the figure higher: as many as 21 percent of maternal deaths in the region associated with abortion. In Nicaragua, the maternal mortality rate, which includes deaths from unsafe abortion, is 86.3 women per 100,000 live births, compared with 8.9 for women in the United States. Despite severe restrictions, approximately 32,000 abortions occur each year, only a handful of which are legal and safe (six in 2002). Now, however, even abortions deemed “therapeutic” are banned, carrying the same prison sentences as those for other abortion procedures. Medical professionals and women's rights advocates say the ban will have deadly consequences for women—for example, in cases of ectopic pregnancies, in which a fetus develops outside of the womb. This has been a position that the [Roman Catholic] Church has been promoting in Latin American countries for the last 15 years," explains Cunningham, who, as director of the Center for Indigenous People's Autonomy and Development, partners with the U.S.-based women's rights organization, Madre. Indeed, in neighboring El Salvador, a similar ban advocated by the church has been in effect since 1998. Because of the church's institutional power in such majority-Catholic countries, Cunningham explains, democratic advances may not advance secularism. “So there is a very high incidence of intervention by the Catholic church in the organization of the state.” In the 1980s, a brutal civil war between the Sandinistas and the contras, a right-wing counterrevolutionary force supported by the United States, led to a truce and an election that drove Ortega from power in 1990. Running this year on a theme of reconciliation, Ortega befriended his longtime nemesis, Miguel Obando y Bravo, the now retired cardinal archbishop of the capital city of Managua, who famously supported the contras during the civil war. In fact, Obando y Bravo even officiated at Ortega's recent wedding. As polls predicted the vote dividing evenly between Ortega and two more conservative candidates, the Catholic Church, in alliance with the nation's evangelical denominations, rolled out its demand for the ban, rallying some 20,000 in the streets of the nation's capital. Sensitive to charges that his Sandinista government had disrespected the church, Ortega “made an agreement with the Catholic Church,” according to Cunningham, to support the ban. Nicaragua's abortion ban is opposed by every major medical organization in the country, along with the nation's minister of health. The Nobel Women's Initiative , the collective voice of six women who have each won a Nobel Peace Prize—half of the number of women ever so honored over the course of the prize’s 100-year history—issued a statement saying that the ban “undermines the rule of law and negatively impacts on women's rights as citizens.” They called for election observers to take into account what the Nobel laureates saw as “corruption” permitting the “11th-hour political maneuver” to move through Nicaragua's National Assembly “without debate, and in the face of loud protests from women, the medical establishment, and human rights leaders.” Even the UN Development Program, in a letter signed by the leader of its Nicaragua office, Alfredo Missair, weighed in against it. Yet popular support for the ban appears high. That's because, Cunningham says, the media ignored the women’s groups and never made clear to the public that therapeutic abortions would be forbidden. All the public heard, she explains, was “abortion means killing a child.” Outgoing President Bolanos, according to Cunningham, was looking to shore up his legacy amid widespread unpopularity. “He saw this as an opportunity to say, okay, I did something.” Now that the ban has become law, Cunningham and others in Nicaragua's women's movement plan to appeal it to the nation's Supreme Court, on grounds that “it's not constitutional to approve a law that puts women's rights in danger.” The recent death of Jazmina Bojorges, a young mother whose life might have been saved if doctors had aborted the dying fetus that was causing her to hemorrhage, has called attention to the consequences of the ban, leading to talk that her family could sign on as plaintiffs in the case. However, Cunningham does not anticipate meaningful redress in that arena. “We believe we don't have independent Supreme Court.” The next step, she says, is to take the case “to the international level,” before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.