Feature Regional Article

Latin America Region: The Debate over Nicaragua’s Abortion Ban

Amnesty International recently released a report calling on the Nicaraguan government to repeal its abortion ban, passed by the country’s legislature in July 2008. The law does not allow abortion even in cases of rape, incest, or where the life of the mother is in jeopardy. In addition to adversely affecting the physical and emotional health of women, the law imposes criminal sanctions against those who seek an abortion procedure, as well as the health professionals who provide the requisite services. Only three percent of world nations have such absolute bans, which have the strong and vocal support of the Catholic Church.

So far, pregnant women with medical emergencies or serious illnesses, such as cancer and HIV, are being refused treatment because those in the health care industry are afraid of criminal repercussions. If treatment of these medical conditions ultimately endangers the pregnancy or results in an involuntary abortion, both patients and doctors may be subject to prosecution.

There is also a fear that the complete ban will criminalize women who have suffered accidental miscarriages. One health care professional told a story involving a woman who did not want to be treated after suffering a miscarriage. She feared she would be prosecuted because the state would think she had an illegal abortion. Before Nicaragua enacted the total ban, the law allowed women to have “therapeutic abortions” that were deemed necessary for the life and health of the mother. The Rules and Protocols for Management of Obstetric Complications, promulgated by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health, still allow for abortions under limited circumstances where there is a high risk of maternal death, but the recent legislative ban trumps these regulations.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has spoken against the ban. The Committee’s position is that Nicaragua should amend the ban to permit women to undergo safe abortions so that they will not be forced to seek unsafe or illegal abortions. The Committee recognized that access to reproductive health services is a fundamental human right. One report showed that Nicaragua’s teenage maternal death rate has risen drastically, which Amnesty International attributes to the abortion ban. A doctor explained that out of Nicaragua’s ninety-four maternal deaths last year, at least thirteen could have been prevented if the women had access to therapeutic abortions. The Nicaraguan government defends its position, citing reports that maternal mortality decreased the year after the ban went into effect, and that there have not yet been any criminal proceedings against violators. The government is showing no signs of repealing the ban in the near future.