Nicaragua's Total Ban On Abortion Spurs Critics

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Jazmina Bojorge arrived at Managua's Fernando Vélez Paiz Hospital on a Tuesday evening, nearly five months pregnant and racked with fever and abdominal pain. By the following Thursday morning, both the pretty 18-year-old and the female fetus in her womb were dead.

The mystery of what happened during the intervening 36 hours might not ordinarily have catapulted Bojorge into the headlines of a nation with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the Western Hemisphere.

But a week before her death on Nov. 2, Nicaragua's legislature had voted to ban all abortions, eliminating long-standing exceptions for rape, malformation of the fetus and risk to the life or health of the mother. Now, outraged opponents of the legislation have declared Bojorge its first victim.

"It's clear that fear of punishment kept the doctors from doing what they needed to do to save her -- which was to abort the pregnancy immediately," said Juanita Jiménez of the Women's Autonomous Movement, an advocacy group that is leading the campaign to reverse the ban. "This is exactly what we warned would happen if this law was passed. We've been taken back to the Middle Ages."

Julio César Flores, director of the hospital, countered that the new legislation, which took effect Nov. 19, hadn't even been signed into law when Bojorge arrived for treatment. Her death, which remains under investigation by Nicaraguan medical authorities, "has nothing to do with the abortion law," he said. "These charges are being made by people who are taking advantage of what happened."

The controversy is the latest twist in a debate over the proper limits on abortion that is raging not just in Nicaragua but across Latin America.

With the exception of Cuba, every nation in this predominantly Catholic region either totally prohibits abortion or limits it to extreme circumstances. And while the global trend over the past decade has been to liberalize abortion laws, efforts to do so in Latin America have been met by an equally determined campaign to strengthen them further.

So far, the anti-abortion camp's greatest triumph has been in El Salvador, where in 1998, at the public urging of San Salvador's Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle, lawmakers removed all exceptions to the nation's ban on abortion and increased penalties to up to 50 years' imprisonment.

Here in Nicaragua, the church has also long played an influential role in politics. Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who is retired but remains a public figure, is still respected by many for standing up to both U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza during the 1970s and Daniel Ortega, the Marxist-leaning revolutionary who replaced him in the 1980s.

Soon after El Salvador passed its new law, Obando and his successor, Archbishop Leopoldo Brenes, turned their attention to pressing for a similar measure in Nicaragua.

Abortion had been illegal in Nicaragua for more than a century, punishable by prison terms of up to four years for women undergoing the procedure and 10 years for doctors who performed it.

However, the penal code made an exception for "therapeutic abortion" if three doctors determined it was needed. According to Health Ministry regulations, this covered abortions of pregnancies lasting 20 weeks or less that posed a threat to the life or health of the mother or in which the fetus was malformed. In practice, rape victims were also permitted legal abortions.

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