Notes on a Scandal Of Historic Proportions
September 13: 66 National Assembly representatives ratify
the criminalization of therapeutic abortion that many of them
first pushed through in the midst of last year’s election campaign.
Nicaragua is now one of only three countries in the world that turns
pregnant women, doctors and other health personnel into criminals
for involvement in terminating any pregnancy, even if recommended
due to extremely high risk for the mother or to obstetric emergencies.
Therapeutic abortion had been legal for over a century and a half
until our legislators decided to criminalize it last October.
The following are public and not so public tidbits
about how this shameful scandal went down,
all first hand or from direct sources.
María López Vigil
2006, October: A number of Sandinista women with the ear of FSLN National Assembly representatives tell them they have committed a gross human rights violation by penalizing therapeutic abortion just to avoid the Catholic Church’s sanction during the election campaign. To quiet the women, some assure them it was just an electoral tactic and “we’ll put it back in” when the new Penal Code is discussed in 2007.
* 2007, January to September: The Nicaraguan women’s movement lobbies the legislators long and hard through phone calls, meetings and interviews to reestablish the right to therapeutic abortion in the new Penal Code. Time and again they hear from most of those who receive them: “You don’t have to convince us, we’re already convinced. It’s fair; we know a lot of cases, we know all about the reality women face, but…” But what? “...but this isn’t going to be decided by medical criteria or evidence from reality. This is a political deal.”
Between whom? Evasive responses. Legislators from both the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) say it’s between the FSLN and the Catholic hierarchy. Most FSLN representatives hold their tongues but some, like Edwin Castro and Xochilt Ocampo, shout between choice vulgarities that they’re defending life then slam down the phone, while others say it’s the “Right” that’s obeying the bishops. Everyone from the FSLN who does talk agrees that they’ll change their votes if the Catholic Church changes its position. A few thus recommend that the women try to “convince the bishops, convince the archbishop...”
The bishops publicly declare that they trust the FSLN not to back down on its promise to keep all forms of abortion criminalized. Who’s in charge here? Article 14 of the Constitution says the Nicaraguan state is secular. Most people in Nicaragua haven’t been educated—by the Catholic Church or the Protestant ones or even the different governments—to understand what “secular” means and thus to work out God’s place in a plural society. Do the legislators understand? During last year’s debate over the criminalization of abortion, Social Christian Agustín Jarquín, who ran on the FSLN ticket, was the only legislator on the Sandinista bench to give reasons for voting the way he did. All the others kept quiet. With the Constitution in hand, Jarquín argued, “The state is certainly secular and that’s in the Constitution, but the Constitution’s general framework also establishes that the Magna Charta is issued and proclaimed in the name of Christians committed to their faith in God.” From this, Jarquín deduced the principle by which he voted against therapeutic abortion: “The state is secular, but not atheist.”
* With the inauguration of the new FSLN government in January, dozens of appeals against the criminalization of therapeutic abortion are filed with the Supreme Court on the grounds that it is unconstitutional because it contradicts a number of constitutional articles: the right to life, to health, to physical integrity... Between January and June, when the justices are to issue their decision on these appeals, women hold sit-ins outside the Court demanding a response. They bring coffins symbolizing the women who have died because therapeutic abortion was criminalized. June comes and goes. July comes and goes. Some justices talk to President Ortega to find out what decision would be most suitable and he tells them to “convince the archbishop to change his opinion.” No judgment is ever issued, not even a provisional one. The appeals are simply shelved in the Supreme Court. The alliance between the FSLN and the Catholic Church, not the Constitution, holds the key to everything. Justice Rafael Solís assures activists of the “pro-life” group that “a judgment favorable to therapeutic [abortion] will be issued over my dead body.”
* International organizations speak out on the issue; the Committee of CEDAW, the Convention to End Discrimination Against Women, calls on the state to change its position; the International Human Rights Federation expresses its opinion; Save the Children and Plan International both issue statements and the Pan-American Health Organization reminds the government of its international commitments... These positions make no impression on the Ortega-Murillo government and bounce off the ecclesiastical hierarchy and most of the legislators.
* The women’s movement holds forums in universities and institutes, workshops in neighborhoods and rural districts, processions and study and reflection campaigns to try to clear up misconceptions. Media and legal information reaches mass proportions. “All pregnant minors were raped,” reads one of the posters most seen during marches and protests, while a call to civil disobedience and social rebellion also starts to appear: “Legislator: if you won’t respect my life, we won’t respect your law.”
* August. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela discovers that Nicaragua’s governing couple has turned the government position on this issue of public health, human rights and social justice into one of religious faith. He receives ample information about how the FSLN bench voted in October 2006 and Rosario Murillo’s speech on that occasion setting out the party’s official position: “We’re emphatic: no to abortion, yes to life. Yes to religious beliefs, yes to faith, yes to the search for God, which is what strengthens us every day to return to the right path. The FSLN backs the position of the Catholic Church and churches in general against abortion in any of its forms because it is an attack on faith, on life.”
Chávez is incredulous. He asks for more details about the FSLN’s public policies for women to “see what I can do.” The Cuban government decides to do nothing, considering it a waste of time. It’s already disenchanted by the Ortega-Murillo position.
The FSLN’s close alliance with the Catholic hierarchy to criminalize therapeutic abortion contrasts with the position of the other countries in the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). Article 226 of Bolivia’s Penal Code establishes that there is no punishment “if the abortion was practiced to avoid danger to the mother’s life or health” or “when the abortion is the result of a crime of rape, abduction not followed by matrimony, estupro [intercourse with a non-consenting minor compounded by deceit or misuse of authority] or incest.” Articles 267-271 of Cuba’s Penal Code only sanctions abortion practiced by force or against the woman’s liberty, while article 435 of Venezuela’s Penal Code states that “No punishment whatsoever will be incurred by a practitioner who provokes an abortion as an indispensable measure to save the life of a woman in labor.” And article 447 of Ecuador’s Penal Code says that abortion “will not be punishable if it has been done to avoid danger to the life or health of the mother.”
* August. Expectations grow as the parliamentary debate draws closer. The women’s movement maps out how the different representatives might cast their votes. They expect a unanimous FSLN vote, closing ranks to maintain the alliance between the FSLN and Catholic bishops, but PLC legislators assure them they haven’t been given orders on how to vote while the ALN Liberals say that they are the least disciplined bench and will be given no order other than to vote their “conscience.” The mapping and lobbying suggest a possible 23 votes favoring therapeutic abortion. There’s room for hope.
* As the date approaches, the women’s movement mobilizes resources to turn the media into spaces for reflection on the issue after they have been so manipulated by the pro-lifers that the distinction between therapeutic abortion and abortion on demand has been virtually blotted out. The newspaper La Prensa agrees to publicity, but when a booklet titled “What is therapeutic abortion?” appears in one of its editions, its directors regret having published it. “You’re supporting crime and committing an outrage against the values of our publication,” they tell the women, canceling any further advertisements or information.
The spot most heard during the month is the following: “Imagine that a medical condition puts your life in danger; imagine that the doctors’ hands are tied; imagine that the hospital doors are closed in your face; imagine that helping you is a crime. This isn’t a nightmare, it’s the reality faced by women with serious complications during pregnancy. Therapeutic abortion isn’t a whim, it’s a necessity. Therapeutic abortion saves lives; criminalizing it doesn’t.” The only movie theater to project the spot is Cinemark. Channel 11 television also accepts it, but after broadcasting it just once a phone call from the channel’s owner, Carlos Pellas, the richest man in Nicaragua, prohibits the further airing of the spot.
* Among the Sandinista organizations still loyal to the FSLN, both the Communal Movement and AMNLAE, the women’s association, openly support therapeutic abortion—their leaders have Sandinista origins but are not unconditional Ortega supporters. Over their long years of work, they have learned all about the public health system’s deficiencies and the real lives of Nicaragua’s poorest women. In León, Carlos Fonseca Terán, son of FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca, is scandalized by his party’s official position and works hard to undo this political and human error.
Marcela Pérez, wife of FSLN founder Tomás Borge, tells the newsweekly Siete Días that “I’m in favor of the sovereignty of countries and of people. Access to legal, safe and free abortion must be the right of all women. I’m not in favor of abortion, no woman in the world is, but this tends to be the last and desperate recourse when facing a greater evil. Too many girls die from badly practiced abortions in Nicaragua and many more will do so after the application of a law that prohibits the saving of their life. Criminalization of therapeutic abortion condemns Nicaragua’s poor women to either jail or death.”
* September: Faced with the polarization and the closed positions of the Catholic hierarchy and “pro-life” groups, the United Nations representation in Nicaragua promotes a top-level technical meeting and offers to mediate until a minimum consensus can be reached on a compromise Penal Code containing exceptions to total criminalization. President Ortega accepts the idea and agrees to participate, giving the women’s movement renewed hope that all is not lost. But it’s just a stalling tactic. Ortega puts off the meeting and orders National Assembly president René Núñez to move the date for the vote up to September 13 and get it over with.
* September 12: “Pro-life” groups meet for the last time with the legislators on the Justice Commission, once again presenting their positions and threatening excommunication for any who vote in favor of therapeutic abortion.
* The Sandinista medical union, frightened by the orientations of the governing pair, never makes any statement. Health Minister Maritza Cuan remains silent as well, even though in 2006, with support from then-Health Minister Margarita Gurdián, she drafted technical arguments that President Bolaños could employ from a public health perspective to veto the National Assembly’s abolition of therapeutic abortion. Now her hands are tied. She’s also afraid to make any public statement on the reality of obstetric emergencies in the country, which she knows very well from her years of work in the health sector.
* September 13: At 7 am, two hours before the start of the parliamentary debate, the 38 FSLN representatives are summoned to an emergency meeting. President Ortega instructs them all to vote against therapeutic abortion; nobody is to stray from the fold. Only one of the FSLN’s female representatives actually turns up for the parliamentary session, but leaves when the vote is called. The others are no-shows. They’ve kept their word to Ortega and Murillo not to vote for therapeutic abortion, but when the Sandinista women activists berate them for it, they can say they didn’t vote against it either. Jamileth Bonilla of the ALN employs a similar tactic of failing to turn up, except that she promised to vote for therapeutic abortion.
* The National Assembly floor: The prize for the most grotesquely homophobic and ignorant speech goes to PLC representative Freddy Torres, owner of several coffee haciendas. Facing the women watching the debate from the public gallery, he spits out that “maternity is for real women, not those who believe in killing the unborn. Many of those up there shouting haven’t even been mothers because their molecular structure doesn’t allow them to be or to perform woman’s functions.” His fellow bench members ostentatiously rip up and toss in the air the most recent information on the consequences of 11 months of criminalization that the women had brought with them to the plenary session. Wilfredo Navarro of the PLC screams “Lesbians!” at them. The prize for most aggressive goes to another PLC representative, known to sexually molest household help in the neighborhood where he lives.
Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) legislator Mónica Baltodano, the only woman to speak in the Assembly debate, gives her speech after listening to ten men in a row. She starts with the following words: “It falls to me to speak in the name of women, because some of the men who have already spoken talk about us as if we were cows on their farms...”
Baltodano tries to impose a little common sense: “If the legislators are concerned about the proliferation of backstreet abortions, criminalizing therapeutic abortion will do nothing to reduce them. It has been demonstrated that the only way to reduce abortion is sex education, access to contraceptive methods and, above all, responsible paternity. It has been shown that a good proportion of men have an irresponsible attitude towards their children and not a few representatives in this chamber have been irresponsible fathers.”
She also refers to the legislators’ backward provincialism: “Several have said that this is an issue being imposed on us by countries and peoples with customs that clash with our own Christian culture. Well, for your information, the interruption of pregnancy for medical reasons has been established in Nicaragua since 1837; 170 years ago! The fact that Nicaragua currently criminalizes therapeutic abortion places us among those nations that violate women’s human rights... We will form part of a miniscule number of reactionary states that prefer to see women die before interrupting a pregnancy.”
Not violating “our Christian culture” is the same argument that European ambassadors and representatives of international organizations heard from the mouth of President Ortega or his close followers when they expressed their surprise that a supposedly revolutionary, leftwing, progressive government in favor of the “wretched of the earth” held positions that so violated human rights. One diplomat distinguished for her defense of women and her tenacious public support of the right to therapeutic abortion is Swedish ambassador Eva Zetterberg.
* José Pallais, president of the National Assembly’s Justice Commission and a PLC Liberal, does not obey orders. He’s the only PLC legislator to register a free, responsible and informed vote, proving himself to be a real Liberal in the historical sense of the word. After listening to his colleagues in the debate, he tells them, “We are acting hastily, proceeding in an incomplete and unjust way... We have to leave women protected in some way when they have to be saved... I don’t want to have it on my conscience that we didn’t do anything to save them.”
Before the vote, Pallais had met with the women’s movement and with jurists and doctors, and made great efforts to seek a consensus involving exceptions to the law. In his Assembly speech he claims that the Catholic bishops have told him personally and implied publicly that therapeutic abortion is “morally acceptable,” and that they are committed to the exceptions. The bishops deny this the following day and declare their satisfaction with the vote maintaining the criminalization (66 in favor and the 3 members of the MRS bench opposed; the remainder of the 93 Assembly members made themselves scarce). When Archbishop of Managua Leopoldo Brenes is asked whether he and the hierarchy pressured the legislators to vote against therapeutic abortion, he responds ingenuously that “it made me laugh when I read that, because I don’t have any of their telephone numbers. I find it hard enough to learn the number of my own house.”
* September 14: In a paid ad in the print media, the Feminist Movement publicly thanks the only five representatives who defended the right to life of women and children: Mónica Baltodano, Enrique Sáenz and Víctor Hugo Tinoco from the MRS bench; PLC Liberal and president of the National Assembly’s Justice Commission José Pallais; and ALN Liberal and National Assembly vice president Luis Callejas.
* September 24: Vatican City. Pope Benedict XVI receives the new ambassador from Daniel Ortega’s government. His message includes the following: “The Holy See also wants to express its recognition of Nicaragua for its position in the multilateral forums on social issues, especially respect for life, which faced considerable internal and international pressures. In this sense it should be considered very positive that last year the National Assembly approved the abolition of therapeutic abortion.” And he adds: “In this respect, it is essential to increase the aid of the state and society itself to women with serious problems during their pregnancy.” Pontifical contradiction. How can they be helped if the law permits no one to do so?
* Sunday, September 27. A group of 50 fearless Catholic women go to the Cathedral of Managua to demand that the Catholic hierarchy take positions toward women closer to those that Jesus of Nazareth would have had. As they are blocked from entering, some decide to participate in the Mass and receive communion, but priest Bismarck Conde refuses to allow it. He suspends the distribution of the communion and from the microphone refers to them several times as “diabolical.” “We are not fighting flesh and blood, brothers,” shouts the priest, trying to set the congregation against them; “we are fighting the forces of evil.” Some men sprinkle them with holy water, insult them, attack them and shove them out of the church.
It is a pioneer protest, the first time that the anti-Christian intolerance of men who believe themselves “sacred” when they defend human rights, compassion and justice has been stripped bare in such a significant way in the “sacred” place. In a country as resigned as today’s Nicaragua, and with a population as passive as ours today, there is no social group as active and mobilized as the women’s movement that has defended women’s right to life with such a plurality of expressions over many months.
* October 2: Human Rights Watch presents in Managua the results of a study done two months earlier in Nicaragua motivated by last year’s total prohibition of abortion. It is dramatically titled: Over Their Dead Bodies. Women’s rights researcher Angela Heimburger highlights one of the most relevant facts discovered following the prohibition: people are afraid. In fact, the report quotes an employee of the United Nations Agency in Nicaragua saying, “Women are afraid of seeking treatment…. And doctors are afraid of providing treatment.”
No law has been more debated and become more famous in every last corner of Nicaragua than this one that places a blanket penalization on therapeutic abortion, establishing punishments of one to three years in prison for anyone who performs the abortion and from one to two years for the woman who requests it. The Human Rights Watch report moves from the country as it appears in its legal manifestation to the one that really exists when it declares that “although it appears that actual prosecutions are rare, the ban has very real consequences that fall into three main categories: 1) denial of access to life- or health-saving abortion services, 2) denial or delay in access to other obstetric emergency care and 3) a pronounced fear of seeking treatment for obstetric emergencies.” It’s a perverse trinity: violation of rights, negligence and fear. “The net result,” says the report, “has been avoidable deaths.” And the organization that fought for this calls itself pro-life.
* Up to October 2007, a year after therapeutic abortion disappeared from Nicaraguan legislation, at last 80 pregnant women have died from bad medical attention in the public health services, due either to negligence or to the fear generated within society by the criminalization of any interruption of pregnancy. This criminalization appears in a law made by politicians, while this right of all women has been demonized in the discourse of bishops, ministers and priests. All of the women who died were poor. This is nothing short of a heinous scandal.
María López Vigil is editor-in-chief of envío.