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Abortion Ban in Nicaragua Needlessly Endangering Women's Lives, Say Activists

Opponents of abortion ban say hundreds of woman have died due to strict law supported by the church

In Nicaragua, abortion is illegal, with no exceptions, even if the health of the mother is at risk or if the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest.

The country's strong anti-abortion stance, one of the strictest in the world, was signed into law in 2006 in an effort, experts say, by current president Daniel Ortega to win support of Catholic voters, who make up 85 percent of the country's population. But with a new election coming in just a few days, some Nicaraguan activists are claiming that the country's abortion laws are putting women in fatal danger and need to be changed.

During a march through Managua, Nicaragua's capital, activists staged a mock funeral in protest of the country's abortion laws and to demand the right to "therapeutic" abortions when the life of the pregnant woman is in danger.

"Over a hundred women have died as a direct result of [the current abortion laws]," said Ana Quiroz, a pro-choice activist who participated in the march, in an interview with Al Jazeera, shown below.

Nicaragua has one of the highest maternal death rates in Latin America, with approximately 170 deaths per 100,000 births, according to statistics from the World Health Organization and the Human Rights Watch.

That number has been on the rise since 2006, critics of Nicaragua's abortion law say. In 2009, Amnesty International released a study, titled "The total abortion ban in Nicaragua: Women's lives and health endangered, medical professionals criminalized," which blamed the law for creating a culture of fear when it comes to pregnancy by creating "criminal sanctions against doctors and nurses who treat a pregnant woman or girl for illnesses such as cancer, malaria, HIV/AIDS or cardiac emergencies where such treatment is contraindicated in pregnancy and may cause injury to or death of the embryo or fetus," the study said.

A 26 year-old mother of three, who asked not to be identified, told Al Jazeera that she could not get treatment for cervical cancer because she was pregnant and nearly died because she could not get an abortion.

"When I asked the doctor what I could do, he said it was up to fate and that I could die since I could not be given any treatment since I was pregnant. I was in shock," she said.

In another case where a pregnant woman needed cancer treatment, a woman going by the alias "Amalia," was refused chemotherapy or radiation because doctors feared they would be prosecuted by authorities for harming the fetus, according to a 2010 report by Amnesty International (AI).

"It is shocking that Nicaragua would deny a cancer patient potentially life saving treatment because she is pregnant," said Esther Major, Central America Researcher at AI, in the report. "Amalia's situation reveals the impact of this law and demonstrates the urgent need to repeal this draconian ban which prevents the delivery of timely care and impedes sound medical judgment."

"Nicaragua's ban of therapeutic abortions is a human rights scandal that ridicules medical science and turns the law into a weapon against the provision of essential medical care to pregnant women and girls," Major added.

Despite the evidence provided by groups like AI, the Nicaraguan government has not relented on its abortion stance and has even been accused of using a 12-year-old rape victim who was impregnated by her stepfather as a political ploy by taking custody of the girl and making sure she carried through with the pregnancy, despite evidence of her health being in danger, which forced her to be hospitalized.

"It is absolutely pathetic that the president and the first lady, in their quest for power and votes, are willing to play with the life and basic rights of women and girls," said Maria Teresa Blandon, of the Nicaraguan feminist movement, according to the Nicaragua Dispatch.

However, the Christian influence on Nicaragua's politics was on display when religious figures appeared when a Catholic priest and an evangelical Christian reverend appeared with Nicaragua's health minister at a press conference to address the status of the young girl.

Reverend Omar Duarte, who the Nicaragua Dispatch said has no medical license, said the girl's condition was "very stable."

"The most important thing is that they are making all necessary efforts to save the life of the mother and the child, because we remember that life belongs only to God," said Father Neguib Eslaquit.

Fortunately, despite failing health, the girl gave birth to a 5-pound baby boy by cesarean section earlier this week after eight months of pregnancy. Both she and the baby are said to be in stable condition, although the girl is currently facing numerous health risks as the result of a difficult pregnancy and birth, according to the Nicaraguan newspaper, El Nuevo Diario.

Despite the polarization regarding Nicaragua's abortion laws and its alleged dangers for women, pro-life groups in the U.S. say there is no link between abortion bans and maternal deaths.

Paul Rondeau, the executive director of the American Life League, a Catholic pro-life group, told The Christian Post that framing abortion as a life-saving technique is "pursuing a question which in the medical world does not exist." In fact, he says, "published research says it's the opposite."

Rondeau points to countries like Ireland and Poland, which have abortion bans like Nicaragua but have some of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world.

However, abortion rights groups say that comparing maternal mortality rates between countries with vast wealth disparities is unfair due to the differences in health care options, Bloomberg Businessweek reported.

Rondeau also pointed out that the results of Nicaragua's abortion ban, which AI reported as preventing a pregnant woman from obtaining chemotherapy, is not necessarily consistent with the views of the American Life League, the Catholic Church. Saving the mother's life should be the goal, and if a fetus dies as an indirect result of medical treatment, that is not inconsistent with a pro-life ethic, he said.

According to the Association of Pro-Life Physicians: "Most of what passes as a therapeutic, or medically-necessary abortion, is not necessary at all to save the mother’s life. For example, if a mother has breast cancer and requires immediate chemotherapy to survive that can kill the baby, the physician will frequently recommend a therapeutic abortion....[However,] the abortion is not necessary to protect the mother’s health. The necessary medication may injure or kill the pre-born child, but this is no justification for intentionally killing the child. If the child is injured or dies from the medication prescribed to the mother to save her life, the injury was unintentional and, if truly medically necessary, not unethical."

Whether or not there is a link between abortion bans and maternal deaths, the abortion ban in Nicaragua is likely to stay in place, no matter who gets elected. According to the Nicaragua Dispatch, all five presidential candidates are vehemently against abortion and oppose lifting the ban on therapeutic abortions.

However, that view is not in line with the Nicaraguan people, according to a recent poll that found nearly 80 percent of Nicaraguans said that current legislation needs to reversed or revised.

"I think this poll is evidence that people, when confronted with this situation, think it's a woman's right to decide, not the priests," said Martha Maria Blandon, director of Ipas Central America, an organization that defends the sexual reproductive rights of women.

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