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  Number 260 | Marzo 2003
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Nicaragua

The Names of the Rose

At a time when millions of people were focused on preventing the war against Iraq in the name of life, a young Nicaraguan girl by the name of Rose won a place in world headlines, and in so doing won affection. In Nicaragua, her story opened the doors to a necessary debate on a multitude of issues.

Nitlápan-Envío team

For an entire month, a different theme vied successfully for space with all the political and economic issues that usually dominate Nicaragua’s headlines. Not only refusing to go away, it wove in many related topics and gradually inched further into the conscience of the Nicaraguan population. It even found its way into the international news, briefly competing with the non-deliberative warmongering of what best-selling author Michael Moore has baptized “stupid white men.”

We’ll call her Rose

When a young illiterate Nicaraguan couple working on a coffee farm in Turrialba, Costa Rica, took their nine-year-old daughter to a local hospital on January 12 thinking she was suffering from a parasitic infection, the doctors noted an inexplicable vaginal dilation. Two different hospitals kept her in bed for 25 days to observe such an unprecedented case—the girl had not yet started menstruating—before informing her stunned parents that she was pregnant. The daughter then explained that a Costa Rican in his twenties who worked on the same farm had raped her in late November.

The story made the front page of Costa Rican newspapers—which dubbed the little girl “Rosa,” or Rose—and was quickly picked up in Nicaragua. Within days, a delegation from the governmental Office of Human Rights Attorney and the nongovernmental Women’s Network against Violence traveled to the neighboring country, learned more about the case and visited the child and her parents. After resolving a number of institutional and migratory tangles, the delegation brought the family of three back to Nicaragua on February 12.

Against a backdrop
of budget veto chaos

Rose’s story captured national attention even though a drawn-out conflict bordering on the absurd was still occupying center stage, with President Bolaños making good on his promise to partially veto the 2003 national budget amended by the National Assembly in December. His move, however necessary it may have been, earned him no popularity points, since the original budget had been imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the National Assembly’s modifications had largely involved raising the wage of low-paid state workers. Political and social sectors alike brandished all manner of reasonable and unreasonable arguments and contradictory declarations, as well as engaging in several protest marches. The President responded with scary prophesies of what a parliamentary rejection of his veto would mean for the aid package offered by international cooperation over the next three years. In the end, he hammered out a compromise with a majority of the legislators in a colossal horse-trading session that peeled away even more of Bolaños’ image and that of his touted “New Era.”
It is still not fully clear what this exhausting tug of war was really about. The most visible aspects of the “solution” were a number of “tax patches”: higher taxes on cigarettes and mid-range imported used cars (not high-ticket, gas-guzzling SUVs) that will supposedly cover the minimum wage increases approved by the Assembly and originally vetoed by Bolaños.

In the end, the main result of the negotiations was to maintain the budget at the IMF-imposed ceiling without touching the mega-salaries earned by either top executive officials or the legislators themselves. It was also done without forcing the banks to pay retroactively all of the profit taxes waived during the Alemán government and even without using that shameless exemption as a lever for renegotiating the government’s asphyxiating bond debt with the banks. The only positive aspect was the commitment to design a “comprehensive” tax reform without delay.
Other relevant political events were taking place as well. Just as a poll showed that Bolaños’ popularity had dropped 17 points between October 2002 and February 2003, the Constitutionalist Liberal Party—formally the governing party—launched its electoral strategy by declaring itself officially in opposition. Another important event was the leaking of a presidential project for widespread reform of the impoverished state, reportedly to reign in institutional excesses and drastically reduce the enormous bureaucracy generated by the Alemán-Ortega pact.
And contrary to expectations, the executive branch’s fight against the corruption institutionalized by Alemán, his family and business partners gave signs of revitalization. Shelved cases such as the credit card swindle were dusted off, while previously unpublicized ones such as the pillage of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute were revealed. Alongside this effort at transparency, however, Bolaños shot another hole in his image as the “anti-corruption hero” by naming international boxing gangster Don King an “honorary Cabinet member” when he visited Managua. In addition, new information was aired about the seemingly untouchable FSLN connection to the collapse of Interbank a couple of years ago, and reports began to surface about a drug trafficking support network encrusted in the courts. The FBI also visited Nicaragua to interrogate Byron Jerez, reportedly offering early pardons for his string of convictions in exchange for information about Alemán.

Meanwhile, the subject of those interrogations remained comfortably serving time poolside at his sprawling hacienda, buttressing his “need” for this illegal privilege with alleged attack of angina symptoms. A police report released the first week of February had acknowledged the impossibility of complying with the limitations imposed on Alemán during his house arrest (particularly visits and use of cell phones). The police thus requested a judicial order to transfer him to the prison in Tipitapa, which the office of Attorney General seconded on February 12. By what may or may not have been a coincidence, however, Alemán was admitted to a Managua hospital on the night of February 15 and released 48 hours later. The medical findings described his state as follows: “arterial hypertension, dyslipedemia [fat in the blood], type 2 mellitus diabetes and morbid obesity.” The report swayed Judge Juana Méndez to ratify her house arrest decision. Although admitting that his state of health is not so serious as to make him unable to go to prison, Méndez argued that “being at home favors his treatment and avoids a worsening of his ailments.”

Rose returns to Nicaragua

Rose arrived back in Nicaragua amidst all that hullabaloo and immediately became an example, an emblem, a challenge and the subject of incredibly heated debate. Her situation made space on the country’s convulsive political-economic stage for her brief appearance because it took the wraps off all of Nicaragua’s most essential structural problems. There are many names for this Rose, whose unseen face we had to construct in our imagination, thus perhaps making us love her all the more.
By the time they arrived, Rose and her parents had already been informed of the legal and medical possibility of getting approval for a therapeutic abortion, which has been on the books in Nicaragua for 120 years. This same option had existed in Costa Rica, but had been kept from them. Now with the appropriate information, the parents decided to request the abortion for their daughter. The Penal Code establishes that a team of three doctors must evaluate the risks a given pregnancy poses to the life of the woman—in this case, child. The husband—in this case, parents—must also give their consent.

Impassioned debate

Rose had no more than set foot back in the country she left eight years earlier than the public debate sparked by her story zeroed in on the abortion issue. Rabid right-to-lifers locked horns with insistent defenders of choice. Naturally, the entire media establishment quickly lent itself to a debate that is normally hushed up in Nicaragua. In so doing, all the ideological prejudices surrounding a theme so vital to the two most defended values of humanity—life and liberty—inevitably surfaced.

Many voices were heard, some enraged, others compassionate and sensible, but the majority scientifically uninformed. Women from or close to the Women’s Network against Violence demonstrated the greatest solidarity, passion and responsibility. They kept the little girl and her parents informed, contributed solid ideas to the debate, organized the legal defense for the therapeutic abortion and were there to accompany her when it was performed. Doctors successfully terminated Rose’s pregnancy, by then completing its third month, in a private hospital on the night of February 20 with no health complications, bringing peace to her and her anguished parents.
The debate did not die down at all once news of the abortion came out. By then, Rose’s story had also been covered in important international media, and was circulating on Internet. When Nicaragua’s Cardinal Obando announced that those who had decided on and participated in the abortion were ipso facto excommunicated according to Catholic Church law, the international response including a surprising initiative. A Spanish women’s network promoted an Internet campaign titled “I want to be excommunicated too.” In a matter of days, they had gathered thousands of signatures in solidarity with the decision made by Rose and her parents. They presented 26,000 requests for excommunication to the Apostolic Nunciature in Madrid on March 5.

Amid intimidating declarations by some Nicaraguan officials thought to belong to the fundamentalist Catholic organization Opus Dei and lamentations by others, the Public Ministry closed the possibility of legal action against those involved in facilitating the abortion on March 3, filing away all the judicial proceedings. It also sent a prosecuting attorney to look into the Costa Rican police and judicial investigation of the man Rose identified as the rapist, which was only undertaken in response to Nicaraguan pressure.

By the time the debate was officially closed, Rose was “somewhere in Nicaragua,” playing with other children. “It’s as if she recovered her childhood,” declared one of the Network psychologists working with her.

Her name is emigrant

Although many insisted that the debate over Rose was sordid, morbid, poorly informed, excessive, abusive of the child and only victimized her even more by talking about her so much, Rose did us the great favor of appearing before us with all her names, so we could address them all. It is necessary to speak openly if we are really to reflect. Speaking out is also often the first step to healing. Words are what make us human and sharing them humanizes us.

Rose has many names, and one of them is emigrant. Her parents had lived in Costa Rica for nearly nine years, having left Nicaragua in the mid-nineties during a wave of migration to Costa Rica triggered by the evaporation of hope that the end of the Sandinista-contra war would pay “peace dividends.” Another wave followed in 1998-99, after Hurricane Mitch. It is now estimated that some 500,000 Nicaraguans are living there, working in activities that Costa Ricans, whose country enjoys a notably more prosperous economy than Nicaragua, are no longer willing to do: heavy construction, domestic service, unskilled farm labor... Rose’s parents and the girl herself worked as coffee pickers. Undocumented or temporary emigrants—the latter going in and out seasonally according to the crop—could raise the figure to 800,000. Every day, 200 Nicaraguans cross the border, hoping to find work there that they know they won’t find at home.
Nicaragua has been unable to offer the immense majority of its population any opportunities or economic guarantees for some time. A million men and women, often the boldest, most capable, most determined, have already left. That is half of Nicaragua’s economically active population. Runaways, adventurers, they take with them their energy and their values. It’s a sort of “brain drain” from below; Nicaragua’s loss in any case. Many of those who stay curse the country that they feel cares nothing about them. A recent survey showed that 57% of Nicaraguans wish they had been born in another country. Another one done a couple of years ago showed that three quarters of young people old enough to enter the labor market wanted to leave

Her name is protagonist

Political speeches cascade forth debating the reasons—or lack of them—for the economic stability we are enjoying and stressing the multiple benefits we get from the international financial institutions, thus justifying our total submission to their dictates. In reality, what stabilizes our weak economy, far outstripping our total traditional and nontraditional exports and also exceeding international loans and donations, is the migrant river and the millions of dollars in remittances sent home monthly to help relatives who stayed behind survive. These remittances, estimated at some US$800 million annually, are what keep the damper down on uncontrollable social upheaval.
These emigrant men and women are the true protagonists of whatever economic stability we can be said to enjoy. But they never show up in the analyses with which those in office flatter themselves as statesmanlike development promoters. These emigrants play virtually no role in decision-making in their home countries, but they are the main reason we have not turned off the light and closed the door on this unsustainable country.

Her name is isolation

Another deficiency was spotlighted by the Rose case: the scant concern of ambassadors and consuls for their nationals abroad. Even with the Rose case still in the headlines, the budgets were cut for Nicaragua’s diplomatic representations in a number of countries. President Bolaños warned that the only diplomatic personnel who would survive were those who could “sell” Nicaragua as an attractive destination for investment. Not a word about the emigrants who could be cut adrift in countries where the ambassadors would be attending fancy receptions to give their diplomatic sales pitches.
And then there’s the xenophobia so commonly linked to the emigrant issue. “In Costa Rica they didn’t explain anything to us about what the girl was going through,” Rose’s mother complained. “So we’re not going to go back to where we’ve been mistreated,” added her father. He felt the rapist had gone free for so long because the girl was Nicaraguan and was raped by a Costa Rican: “Those scoundrels ganged up together there, and there was nothing we could do.”
In their written abortion request, Rose’s parents said, “We hope that what happened in Costa Rica doesn’t happen in Nicaragua, because the main reason we came back was to be done with the abuse we received in Costa Rica.” Our emigrants feel alone and are alone, despite the fact that the contribution they make is so responsible for their home country’s economic and social stability. It’s a double contribution. The first is to leave—which means fewer problems for the state to resolve, fewer voices making demands. The other is to send money back whenever they can, money they’ve earned by the sweat of their brow and enduring so many humiliations.

Her name is child

Rose is young, a worthy representative of Nicaragua, where half of the population is under 15 and their education typically ranges from nonexistent to poor and limited. Even if any development plans with a vision of the nation were being drawn up or implemented today, which they are not, the future of this country of children is already mortgaged. Half of these boys and girls, some 800,000, are not even enrolled in the primary school system, and a third suffer chronic malnutrition. In all probability, Rose, too, was malnourished, naturally making her pregnancy even riskier. Her parents want her to continue studying now, so that someday she’ll “be somebody.” Rose had just started her first year of primary school in Costa Rica.

Her name is poor

Most of our girls and boys are poor and the majority of our poor are children. For most poor families, sending their children to school is the maximum concrete expression of the aspiration that things can change. Rose’s parents, both of them unable to read and write, signed their declarations and letters requesting the therapeutic abortion for their daughter with fingerprints. “But just because we’re illiterate,” said her father, “doesn’t mean we’re irresponsible. We have a mind and we have ideas, and what I don’t understand is how so many people studied for nothing, have no mind for anything.” He was referring to the ideological obstinacy of some government officials and opinion makers who tried to interfere in the option they took for and with their daughter, who with unconcealed class prejudices implicitly disparaged their capacity to make a decision...because they’re poor. In today’s technocratic culture, there is a “fight against poverty” but no confidence in the poor. Extreme poverty is being battled, but it is “politically incorrect” to show any indignation against the extreme wealth of those spouting this discourse.

Her name is victim

Rose was raped and abused by a man at least 15 years older. What he did might never have come out had she not gotten pregnant. Everything would have remained, as so often happens, hidden behind her terrorized and confused silence and his blatant gender impunity. Nothing would have changed, except Rose’s own life, scarred forever, with any number of predictable psychological manifestations. “She won’t go back to being like she was before,” her parents recognize. “A wound like this never fully heals,” her humble mother said just after the abortion, “but there will come a time when this is behind us. Now we have done what we had to do: save her life.”
Because she’s a rape victim, Rose is an emblem of this country of rampant sexual abuse, much of which occurs within the home. That isn’t what happened to Rose, but some of those who blindly opposed the abortion, equally blindly insisted that the father was the principal suspect. They didn’t do it because this possibility is so frequently the cruel reality—even in the homes of those with money and social status—as to “explain” the parents’ decision: they were “covering up the crime with the added crime of abortion.”

Her name is survivor

The incredibly high figures surfacing about the percentage of little girls—and boys—who are sexually abused in Nicaragua may still be disordered, with little systematization, but they are particularly mind-boggling when one considers that they are only the tip of the iceberg. This is another way we are mortgaging the future and killing our chances for development, not to mention democracy. And why? Because very often those who are abused abuse others, and because the damage to sexual abuse victims, particularly if not dealt with quickly and supportively, remains like a burn scar and has enormous short- and long-term social consequences, still barely understood in our country.
Rose’s story is also an anguishing reminder that FSLN general secretary Daniel Ortega, so feared and respected by all the politicians in this country, went unpunished after committing a similar crime against his own stepdaughter for years, starting when she was only two years older than Rose. It is awful to recall that over a million Nicaraguans voted for him knowing but perhaps not wanting to believe that this had happened, and that the party neither withdrew his candidacy nor replaced him as leader after learning of his crime. It is equally staggering to remember FSLN electoral campaign chief Lenín Cerna’s shameless justification of this complicity in a June 1999 interview. He said he is not “shocked” by the rape of girls by fathers, stepfathers and other relatives because “if you turn to the common people they will explain it to you, pulling out their millenarian wisdom.”

Her name is child-mother

Rose: a pregnant child, a child-mother. Nicaragua holds the Latin American record for teenage pregnancies and child-mothers. How many of these pregnancies result from rape? The real figure is unknown because fear and hurt prevent discussion, but one thing is sure: a lot of them. In many other cases, adolescents seek “to have a child with the first person who looks at them” because the culture has taught them that this is the only way to feel deserving of respect after putting up with years of disrespect, abuse and hard work as a child. The mission that should fill the life of all women, according to the patriarchal culture, is to be a mother. Young girls from the rural areas and the most impoverished and uneducated urban sectors assume this mission most rapidly and with most devotion.

Once Rose’s case became public, Costa Rican newspapers reported the case of another raped and pregnant Nicaraguan girl; in that case, she and her parents reportedly wanted to have the baby. As several more cases quickly came to light, Costa Rica’s National Children’s Board provided hair-raising figures: between 1997 and 2002 alone, that institution had documented 3,131 cases of pregnant minors under the age of 14; in other words, three cases every two days. And not all were Nicaraguan girls; this plague exists in Costa Rica too. The board’s president said that, given the ages involved, the most responsible supposition was that these pregnancies were the result of rape.

Her name is woman

We are perversely drawn away from the truth by many simplistic explanations. There is the economic one—this only happens among the poor, and because of overcrowding. And the “moralistic” one—these are aberrant, mentally ill men, deviant fathers, drunks and drug addicts. And the religious ones—they are men who don’t believe in God, don’t know about Christ, or are families that have lost their religious values. And the explanations that excuse men from this crime by blaming the women—the girls’ mothers don’t look after them, or the girl herself was being a flirt, provoked what happened to her by wearing a short skirt...

The bald truth is that behind every sexual abuse is an abuse of power, of gender power. Ten thousand years of patriarchal culture have taught men, all of them—rich, poor, ugly, handsome, young, old, Left, Right—that they have the right to the body of any woman who appeals to them. It is a colossal advance for humanity that millions of human beings are so firmly repudiating war as a way to resolve conflicts. It is also a colossal advance that millions of men around the world are at least theoretically turning away from the cultural teaching that they are superior to women and have the right to demonstrate their power sexually.
In Nicaragua, we still have a long way to go. Perverse opinions on why men sexually abuse women and children permeate not only the minds of the political class but also the policies of state institutions.

Her name is choice

Once Rose was back in Nicaragua and the decision was made to abort the pregnancy, the legal procedure was very clear, something that cannot be said for the heated public controversy saturated with “advice” about what should or should not be done. Although there was no room for legal doubt, the Ministry of the Family insisted at several points that the girl be turned over to them, with the obvious intent of preventing the therapeutic abortion. By demanding custody of Rose, the ministry officials were ignoring the fact that she had parents who were taking responsibility for her. This seemingly inexplicable overstepping of its authority paradoxically violated the sacred principle of patria potestas, the power over children vested in their parents.

Meanwhile, after a hesitation that can only be explained by fear of getting on the wrong side of the Catholic hierarchy, the health minister finally and only very reluctantly designated the medical team that would analyze the state of Rose’s health. That negligent foot-dragging alone did nothing for the health of a child already under intense physical and psychological stress.
After an unusually slow and detailed examination by a team of well more than three doctors, their findings clearly identified the problems affecting Rose’s little body and the “severe harm” that bringing the fetus to term in her immature womb would cause. Their conclusion was that it was as risky to continue the pregnancy as to abort it. No one could guarantee the life of either child—the child-mother or the fetus growing inside her. Nor could anyone predict how such an unprecedented pregnancy would unfold.

By not coming down firmly on the side of either option, the ambiguous medical report left the decision in the parents’ hands. And they decided what they had already expressed so decisively: they wanted the pregnancy terminated. In theory it could have been performed in a public hospital, since it was a totally legal option for citizens fully entitled to decide. Nonetheless, the debate in the media heated up even more following the medical report and the ideological pressures reached the boiling point. The health minister declared that the abortion could not be performed in any hospital because it was a crime the ministry was “not prepared to commit,” while her vice minister contradictorily stated that the doors of any hospital were open to the child whatever decision her parents might make. Three more tense and difficult days passed before the mature, informed and loving decision of Rose’s parents could be acted upon.

Her name is defiance

This little girl was a challenge to the state institutions. One of Rose’s names is thus defiance, because she unmasked our institutions and placed us before an unprecedented conflict between civil society organizations and the state institutions. The Human Rights Attorney’s Office in the state and the Women’s Network against Violence in civil society both proved their mettle.
The Network and its member organizations, which have been actively working for a decade to educate society to the ills expressed by and deriving from violence against woman and girls, and just as importantly had been accompanying the victims of that violence, played a lead role. It was impossible to avoid errors in all the impassioned declarations that Network members were called upon to make to the media during such tense controversy. But information always prevailed, as did the desire to form new values, especially compassion, flexibility and respect for individuals and for the complexity of the situation. The Network unquestionably accredited itself as an efficient, able organization with distinguished professionals in the eyes of state institutions and even of public opinion, still so divided and riddled with machismo.

Her name is victory

Accrediting itself did not imply ovations, or even achieving agreement. The Network’s greatest accomplishment was Rose herself, who was given a more secure life and future than she ever had before. The name of this Rose is thus also conquest, achievement, victory. Just as many women came together in her defense, sister organizations of women from all over the world supported the Network, offering services, airing the case, expressing solidarity. These are the previously unimagined benefits of globalization, of the instant internationalizing of information that can make us more human and more connected.
Like all organized women in Nicaragua who took up this little girl’s defense, the women from the Network learned and taught more in a shorter time than they ever had before. And they were fully up to the job expected of civil society organizations in countries such as ours. They had to coordinate with state institutions to cover the state’s gaps, respond when the state did not, push when it did not comply and be an active part of the solutions that are being demanded and required of increasingly pluralist and complex societies.

Her name is law

President Bolaños acted very wisely by firmly stating that the decision belonged to the parents, based on the medical examination that would be provided to them. Among the institutions involved, one of recent vintage called the Office of Human Rights Attorney—which includes a chief attorney and special offices for both children and women—represented the state with particular dignity. It acted with institutional responsibility in full obedience to the law, refusing to be intimidated by either open religious prejudices or those subtly present in the declarations of many colleagues in the top echelons of government. This team of attorneys explained the laws and the procedures established for applying them, argued at all times on behalf and in the name of the higher interest of the child’s life and freely disagreed with state institutions that refused to comply with the law by respecting the parents’ will. It was an enlightening institutional conflict that shows we are making progress, albeit slowly.

Threats were made to investigate and possibly sue the doctors who performed the therapeutic abortion, while both the Ministry of Government and the Ministry of the Family threatened the NGOs involved with a lawsuit. In the end, however, the Public Ministry only received one formal charge, made by the wife of Harvey Mayorga, himself a major partner in the corruption committed by Byron Jerez and today serving a prison sentence. She presented a confused written statement in which she said she wanted to avoid “abortion becoming a slaughter in the future, in which at some future date women of any age will be able to make the decision to abort.” The public prosecutor’s office acted responsibly, rejecting the charge and closing the case: there was no crime and everything had been done correctly and legally.

Her name is rights

The Code of Children and Adolescents, which various sectors of society have reviled since its ratification a few years ago for what they see as excessively lenient punishment of juvenile delinquents, began to be viewed from new angles. For the first time, and in such an extreme case, one of the least respected children’s rights in Nicaragua—the right to speak out and have their opinions respected—was put into concrete practice.
At barely nine years old, Rose had an opinion and she made it heard. She said she did not want to die and accepted the doctors’ explanation of what they could do to allow her to go on living a more normal life. According to a Network psychologist, she decided alongside her parents “with a mature tone” that moved them. Her mother explained that “when she learned what was happening to her, she said, ‘I don’t want to die,’ and started to cry. The child has said she doesn’t want to die, and we don’t want to lose her. The three of us are the only ones who know the sad days we’ve lived through and nobody can criticize what we’ve done for her.”

Her name is test

There was no shortage in the media of that morbidity surrounding anything related to sex or of the thoughtless scandal-mongering that characterizes some journalists. But for the most part the media saw Rose as a test of their profession, an unprecedented and very delicate case, and they tried to rise to the occasion. One of their great achievements was to keep the girl’s identity confidential. We never saw her face or heard her voice.
The identity of the parents was not confidential, but it was handled discretely. No microphones were shoved into their face and there was none of the insistent, even abusive questioning that is the trademark of crass television journalism. “We want no TV cameras,” said the father, “because they’re rude.” The mother fought for their rights with the same determination: “We want to walk around freely because we’re not some criminals that you should be pursuing with cameras.” They wanted none of the media publicity that so many would sell their soul for these days.
Another major media achievement was to present all sides of the debate, and some even managed to channel it pedagogically. One of the more serious errors, on the other hand, was to characterize the Network’s women as abortionists. Such a phonetically powerful and ideologically charged word is inappropriate for the necessary and justifiable efforts that these feminists were making on the girl’s behalf and against the current. Feminism is unquestionably one of the most radical and promising expressions of humanism. To simplify the problem by polarizing it—everything in Nicaragua is always polarized—into a duel between abortionists and anti-abortionists and identifying the feminists as abortion promoters was a simple-minded temptation. And the media fell into it several times.

Her name is debate

Naturally, the reporting could not avoid the most concrete and immediate issue as the hours counted down. It was an abortion, a taboo theme in Nicaragua, perhaps even more so than in other Latin American countries, which for the most part have at least assimilated some modern thinking on such issues. A gynecologist from the Network sensibly emphasized that reality was being distorted, as if Rose’s case were the first and only case of therapeutic abortion ever requested or performed in Nicaragua. She reminded Nicaraguans that the Bertha Calderón Women’s Hospital records show that, during the nearly seven years of President Violeta Chamorro’s term in office, over 500 therapeutic abortions were authorized, following medical examinations lasting barely half an hour.
The abortion issue is particularly controversial because it puts life and liberty into conflict. And because diverse conceptions—scientific, religious and sometimes the two together—come into play over the exact moment when life begins to be human and just what it is that makes us not only alive but also human. After all, unfertilized sperm and eggs are just as alive and potentially human as fertilized eggs and embryos. The theme is also controversial because ideas and knowledge about development of the human aspect in the mother’s womb—are the brain’s neural connections, which permit thought, what make us human?—have been evolving over time. And hardly least, it is controversial because those who oppose all abortion tooth and nail do not necessarily defend all life, even all human life, to the same extreme. There are many absolutist pro-life anti-abortionists who justify wars in which millions are killed or approve of the death penalty or fail to speak out against the social injustices that cause the hunger that kills over forty thousand newborns around the world every day.

Carl Sagan, the late US astrophysicist, wrote a brief article in collaboration with his wife in 1990 in which they brilliantly laid out the “slippery slopes” of the current abortion debate. The article opened with this thought by philosopher and educator John Dewey: “Humanity likes to think in terms of extreme opposites. It is accustomed to formulating its beliefs in this or that’ terms, between which no intermediate positions are recognized. When forced to acknowledge that it is impossible to opt for either of the extremes, it is inclined to maintain that they are valid in theory, although having to admit, upon reflection, that in practical issues circumstances oblige us to compromise.” That is what Rose’s case is all about.

Her name is freedom

Not everyone understood the “compromise” that Rose and her parents reached. The positions expressed by Cardinal Obando, auxiliary bishop of Managua Jorge Solórzano, the director of Managua’s seminary studies and some lay Catholics abounded in extremist rigidity and lack of compassion. In contrast, other opinion-makers, among them priests and Christian women, recalled with Gospel in hand Jesus of Nazareth’s immense compassion for his fellow people who had to deal with concrete ethical dilemmas, whom he never menaced, frightened or condemned despite the rigid religious laws of that period.

Nicaragua’s contemporary Catholic authorities insisted that the conflict was “between the culture of life and the culture of death.” They unabashedly placed Rose’s parents and the women of the Network in the culture of death and complained that “our institutions” had been prevented from getting to the parents to warn them of their sin and the crime they were about to commit. With great liberty Rose’s father responded, “We are unwilling to subject ourselves to what others say.” To which his wife added, “We cannot wait until every last person offers their opinion about our daughter.” And the father again, “We think everything over among the three of us; we alone have the right to decide what is good and important.”
With a great deal of common sense and complete freedom, many ordinary people interviewed day after day in the newspapers and on radio and television dissented from the absolutist anti-abortion mandate proclaimed by Cardinal Obando.

Her name is secular

Secular. Rose also goes by that name. Her personal drama and the choice that she and her parents made to resolve it put the issue of the state’s lay nature at the center of the discussion. Although the Constitution establishes that Nicaragua is a secular state, public policies, especially any referring to women’s reproductive health, are not ruled by lay principles but by the most extremist orientations of one sector of the Catholic institution.

In is useful to recall that in the sixties, when the debate about decriminalizing abortion was opened to world public opinion, the Vatican publicly authorized abortion on one specific occasion. During the independence war in the Belgian Congo, some nuns were raped and Pope Paul VI gave them permission to terminate their pregnancy if they chose to do so. That decision, an important precedent for compassion and good sense when Christian humanism finds itself in the dilemma of opting between extremes, has been buried in the sands of forgetfulness.

When Cardinal Obando announced in his February 23 Sunday Mass that the girl, her parents and the doctors and nurses who had performed the abortion had all been automatically excommunicated, several voices demanded excommunication for the girl’s rapist. Others pointed out that the Church does not excommunicate priests who rape boys and girls, but “comprehensively” transfers them to another parish. “The crime of Father Amaro”—that abortion followed by the mother’s death—came to the mind of others. Still others mentioned the charges documented in the March 2001 issue of the prestigious US National Catholic Reporter of cases in at least 23 African, European and American countries where priests had raped nuns, often forcing them to abort if they got pregnant to protect their own clerical prestige. In other words, their power.

Her name is cleansing

The tense and raging debate was, despite everything, cleansing. And it was necessary, because arguments were made on both sides and one always ends up learning something from that contrast. Also because the voices defending Rose, who considered that terminating her pregnancy was the most human and Christian choice for the responsible and liberated conscience of both Rose and her parents, were the most numerous and offered the best arguments. The debate demonstrated major progress in the awareness of a society still steeped in machismo and the fear of a punishing God, still far from gender equity and from the belief that God is joy and pleasure and wants us to be free rather than fearful. It was cleansing above all because Rose won her life through her own choice, and, with her, Nicaragua won as well.

Stat Rose pristina nomine

Rose will go on living her life somewhere in Nicaragua or abroad, because she has received several offers to reconstruct it in greater peace and with more resources. We may never again hear about this, poor, malnourished, free and secular little girl who became a challenge for us all, who obliged us to speak the unspoken, who put so many of us to the test and reminded us of the vital realities and crossroads facing our country. She may never know what she has left us, what remains intact. After the purifying flames of a much-needed debate, we are left only with her name. The name of the Rose.

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