Luisa Cabal is Director of the International Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
On November 17, Nicaragua's congress passed a complete ban on abortion. The ban offers no exceptions for women's health, for victims of rape or incest – or even for women whose lives are at risk. By passing this outrageous ban, Nicaragua has joined the ranks of Chile and El Salvador, the only countries in the world to have imposed total abortion bans in the last 20 years.
This movement backwards comes at a time when Nicaragua already has an extremely high rate of maternal mortality, largely due to illegal and unsafe abortion. Yet, instead of acting to adopt measures that protect women, lawmakers have chosen to send the message that they don't care if women die. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 4,000 women die from unsafe abortions every year. In Nicaragua, where maternal death rates are among the highest in the region, unsafe abortions are responsible for 16% of all maternal deaths. Criminalizing abortion will not just increase maternal mortality and worsen the status of women's health – it will force women to carry their pregnancies to term in cases of, for example, anencephaly or ectopic pregnancy.
This abortion ban blatantly violates the most essential human rights of women recognized in international treaties ratified by Nicaragua. Women's rights to life and health are threatened when they cannot undergo therapeutic abortions or are forced to resort to unsafe procedures. Women's rights to dignity, reproductive autonomy and security are infringed when they cannot make decisions concerning their reproductive lives. Women's rights to equality and non-discrimination are implicated when a procedure that only women need is criminalized. In 2001, we released a report, Persecuted: Political Process and Abortion Legislation in El Salvador, which examines the impact on women's lives – and on their human rights – of El Salvador's total abortion ban. We know what happens when abortion is banned: women suffer.
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In addition, this abortion ban goes against global and regional trends, which are moving towards recognition that complete denial of abortion access violates women's rights. In the Center's case KL v. Peru in 2005, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights ruled that the rights of a 17-year old Peruvian woman had been violated when health officials denied her a therapeutic abortion although her fetus carried a fatal abnormality. In March 2006, as a result of another case brought by the Center, the government of Mexico admitted that it violated the rights of a 13-year-old girl who became pregnant as a result of rape and was denied an abortion. Also, in May of this year, Colombia's Constitutional Court ruled that abortion should be permitted when a pregnancy threatens a woman's life or health and in cases of rape, incest and fetal impairment. The court found that denying women access to safe abortion care in these circumstances violated the nation's constitution and women's human rights.
These victories provide hope for Nicaragua's women. The Center, in collaboration with local partners, will explore mechanisms through which to challenge Nicaragua's ban, which violates women's most essential human rights under international law.