Monday, November 19, 2007


Remember when we used to like Daniel Ortega. Well, if you are a right to lifer, you really like him now.

Danny boy is the power behind one of the world's cruelest anti-abortion laws. You asked how such a thing might have happened to a guy we used to think was, at least, progressive. The Guardian newspaper gives us one answer.

It says in the run-up to last November's election, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo spearheaded a campaign for a blanket abortion ban. Ortega, desperate to regain power, mobilised the Sandinistas behind the cardinal's campaign and helped get the ban through the parliament just days before the poll. The former revolutionary, now reinvented as a devout Catholic, was rewarded with the presidency.

With that parliamentary vote Nicaragua last year became one of 35 countries that ban all abortions, even to save the life of the mother, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York. The ban has been strictly followed, leaving the country torn between a strong tradition of women’s rights and a growing religious conservatism. Abortion rights groups have stormed Congress in recent weeks demanding change, but President Daniel Ortega, the alleged former leftist revolutionary and a Roman Catholic, has refused to oppose the church-supported ban.

The absolute ban on abortion in Nicaragua drew cries of outrage from some 30 local medical bodies, Central American human rights organisations, foreign diplomats, the World Health Organisation, the Pan-American Health Organisation and other United Nations agencies.

Danny wasn't moved.

Far from it. In fact this September Ortega whipped Sandinista assembly deputies into voting with rightwing parties 66-3 to uphold the ban.

Nicaragua’s blanket ban on abortion, which criminalizes life-saving medical treatment, has had a devastating impact on women’s health and lives.

In fact, its killing them (One women who died of an abortion is mourned by her family in the picture above).

According to IPS nearly 90 women have died in Nicaragua as a direct or indirect result of the repeal(Women's rights organisations say those 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).

Ana María Pizarro, the head of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Sí Mujer, and Latin American coordinator of the 28th September Campaign for the Decriminalisation of Therapeutic Abortion, told IPS that the reform of the abortion law has driven up the number of fatalities reported in Nicaragua.

Studies by Sí Mujer indicate numerous young pregnant women died from lack of care in health centres where personnel were afraid of the penalties of up to eight years in jail and loss of their medical licence for doctors who carry out or assist in abortions, even when the action is taken to save the expectant mother’s life.

"In practice what is happening is a government death penalty imposed on women," said Pizarro, a gynaecologist.

Women who undergo abortions, whether self-induced or performed with their consent, also face prison terms of one to two years, says the controversial criminal code, which was approved by PLC and FSLN votes.

Patricia Orozco, coordinator of the Feminist Movement fighting for the reinstatement of therapeutic abortions says public protests of the draconian law have been met with police violence.

"Apart from having our right to life undermined, we have been attacked in the streets when we protest -- they have sent the police after us, have beaten us and have harassed us with legal charges of disturbing the peace," she complained.

The legal strategy to overturn the ban is to ask the supreme court to declare the law unconstitutional . No one expects that to happen. However, that would clear the way for a campaign involving the UN and international courts of human rights.

For the Nicaraguan rich, a problematic pregnancy need not be a death sentence, of course. They can fly to Miami or bribe a discreet private clinic in Managua. But in a wretchedly poor country like Nicaragua most young women do not have money. (For those of you to young to remember, it used to be a similar situation here).

The Guardian reported that during September's assembly debate a clear line of demarcation was easy to see. It was a boisterous affair with dozens of girls and women in the public gallery chanting in protest. Separated by just a sheet of glass, the two sides were a study in contrasts. One comprised mostly elderly men in suits, some of whom opened their speeches by saying "I am a Catholic". The other comprised mostly young women in jeans and T-shirts. "Shame, shame, shame on you all," shouted one teenager. "Daniel Ortega is a rapist," shouted another, a reference to allegations the politician raped his stepdaughter.

The challenges, however, to the fight to overturn this deadly law are complicated by the conservative Catholic nature of the country...especially in rural areas.

I might add that as noted above Nicaragua is not alone. And the results of abortion bans are always the same.

Latin America, a region with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, also has the world's highest rate of unsafe abortion: the World Health Organization estimates 3.8 million illegal abortions are performed every year in Latin America and the Caribbean, causing 4,000 deaths.

In El Salvador where a law very similar to the one in Nicaragua is in effect women live in fear. Women coming in to clinics with uterine lacerations indicating an unsafe abortion are required to be reported to the police. Several women have been charged with homicide.

An estimated 2,000 Brazilian women die every year due to complications from illegal abortions.

Abortion in Argentina is strictly limited by law. As of 2007, the Argentine Penal Code establishes severe sanctions for those who cause abortion, either willingly or not, and for women who consent to it, and special punishments for physicians and other healthcare agents. The result, abortion complications are the first cause of maternal death in that nation.

Give a thought to the US Supreme Court. I know many of you consider voting a waste to time, but what if...

The following is from Human Rights Watch.

Abortion Ban Killing Women
By Lance Lattig and Angela Heimburger

Managua - A year after elections in Nicaragua returned Daniel Ortega to power, scores of pregnant women have died, many as a consequence of a new law that prohibits doctors from providing lifesaving treatment.

In the run-up to the hotly contested elections last November, Sandinistas in the National Assembly helped to overturn a legal provision that had permitted lifesaving abortions since 1893. Nicaragua thus joined the handful of countries in which abortion is a crime punishable by prison for both a woman and her doctor - even in cases of rape, incest or when a woman's life is at risk.

During the past year, the new law has had a devastating impact on women in Nicaragua.

* Pregnant women suffering from illnesses such as kidney failure have died because they were not allowed to interrupt their pregnancies to treat their conditions.

* A poor, single mother died of a heart attack after doctors refused to treat her severe hemorrhaging because the fetus was still alive. Neither the fetus nor the woman survived, and her 3-year-old son now lives with his indigent grandmother in precarious conditions.

Human-rights organizations have come under fire for addressing the issue of abortion, but many critics have simply missed the point. The issue isn't abortion per se but the human-rights violations that occur when access to safe and legal abortion is restricted. Freedom of religion is a basic right, but the Nicaraguan government should not use religious doctrine as a pretext for violating women's fundamental rights to life and health.

Untreated Ectopic Pregnancy

In many other countries, even Catholic hospitals perform therapeutic abortions necessary to save a woman's life. Although Nicaragua's health ministry issued protocols on emergency obstetric care, it has since failed to follow up by clarifying what other procedures could be considered therapeutic abortion.

Even according to the government's own figures, maternal mortality has shot up by 100percent in the past year. One woman died in April from an untreated ectopic pregnancy - that is, when a fertilized egg is implanted outside the uterus and has no chance of survival. Normally, doctors around the world intervene as soon as the ectopic pregnancy is detected. But Nicaraguan doctors are now reluctant to act out of fear that their interventions might be considered criminal.

Another reason women are dying in Nicaragua is that they are afraid to seek medical help. Women seeking abortions fear mistreatment and discrimination by medical personnel, as well as the threat of prosecution by the authorities. Human Rights Watch interviewed several women who were able to obtain safe but illegal abortions. None of them was able to obtain the procedure in the public sector, however, despite the medically certified risks to their health posed by their pregnancies.

Here, traffic intersections feature giant posters of Ortega with the slogan, "Arise ye poor of the world!" Under Ortega's government, however, the sad irony is that richer, better-informed women can fly to Miami or seek a costly and illegal abortion in Managua, while poor women often die preventable deaths after they are rejected from public health services or denied emergency obstetric care.

Ortega has made many promises to end the misery of the disenfranchised in Nicaragua. A good place to start would be to guarantee the state's obligation to ensure the health and lives of Nicaraguan women. The Sandinista government should inform women about their right to procure emergency obstetric care in the public-health sector and remind doctors of their obligation to treat them.

Nicaragua has a long history of struggle for social justice. But the total ban on abortion denies equality and protection to women in the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of Nicaraguan society.

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