Yesterday morning in Nicaragua, at the urging of the Church, the State turned its back on women. The National Assembly voted 52-0 to remove the 130-year-old therapeutic abortion exception from the Penal Code – meaning that Nicaraguan women with life-threatening pregnancies now face a death sentence. That includes women with ectopic pregnancies. That includes pregnant women who develop or discover that they have cancer or sexually transmitted infections. That includes nine-year-old girls who have been raped. Not one single legislator stood up for these women's right to life.
This is what democracy looks like for Nicaraguan women: a little over a month ago, influential members of the Catholic and Evangelical churches called for the criminalization of therapeutic abortion (abortion in order to save a pregnant woman's life). They outlined their demands in a closed-door meeting with Nicaraguan legislators, who agreed to fast-track their request. President Enrique Bolaños quickly sent a letter urging the National Assembly to heed the Church's demands. All three leading presidential candidates followed suit, instructing their parties' representatives in the National Assembly to support the criminalization of therapeutic abortion. The Nicaraguan women's movement repeatedly requested meetings with representatives of the National Assembly to explain their opposition to the proposed ban, and their requests were denied. Nicaraguan medical associations, international human rights groups, women's organizations, UN agencies, and representatives from several foreign governments sent letters urging Nicaraguan lawmakers to reconsider their position. The letters were ignored.
The vote was scheduled for Thursday, and at dusk on Wednesday, thousands of women from across Nicaragua gathered outside the National Assembly building in Managua for an all-night vigil. Their request to meet with their elected representatives was denied. In the morning, representatives of the Catholic and Evangelical Churches arrived and were invited into the legislative session. The women's movement continued to be locked out. All morning, the women protested outside of the Assembly building. By noon, the vote was delivered: 52 in favor of banning therapeutic abortion, zero against.
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It has some of the highest rates of adolescent pregnancy and pregnancy- and childbirth-related deaths in Latin America. Sexuality education is virtually non-existent. Access to quality, affordable health services, including contraceptives, is scarce. Women need a permission slip from their husbands to get sterilized. Every year, 36,000 women seek unsafe, illegal abortions. One in three women – like the woman from the Masaya Women's Collective that I spoke to yesterday morning outside the
National Assembly – have suffered violence at the hands of a husband or intimate partner. And now, Nicaragua is one of only three countries in the Western Hemisphere where abortion is illegal under all circumstances.
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So say a prayer for Nicaraguan women tonight, who go to sleep knowing that their next pregnancy could end their lives and that they can turn to neither their government nor their religious leaders for support.
The sign two paragraphs above reads: “I’m a Christian. I have a right to life. Yes to therapeutic abortion.”
Women locked out of the National Assembly building.
A young Nicaraguan man stands in solidarity with women from across Nicaragua. His sign reads, “Therapeutic abortion is a woman’s right, and the state has an obligation to guarantee it.”
All photos taken on October 26, 2006 outside the Nicaraguan National Assembly in Managua.