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November 26, 2007
Nicaraguan woman
Nicaragua's ban on therapeutic abortion risks the lives and health of women throughout the country.
Celeste Gonzalez

An advisory commission from the European Parliament visited Nicaragua to examine how the recent criminalization of therapeutic abortion has affected women’s reproductive and sexual rights. Ipas Central America and Catholics for a Free Choice organized the visit, which lasted from October 29 to November 2.

The European Parliament is a 785-member body that represents the 27 members of the European Union (EU). Along with the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament drafts legislation for the EU. The European Parliament also oversees all foreign development grants coming from the EU. The abortion ban has caused serious concern among members of the European Parliament. Earlier this year, the Swedish government announced that it was withdrawing its bilateral aid to Nicaragua.

The advisory commission visited the hospitals Fernando Velez Paiz and Bertha Calderón Roque, and other facilities in Managua, where they observed practices and interacted with health-care providers. The delegation also met members of the donor community, the Strategic Group for the Legalization of Therapeutic Abortion, the Feminist Movement, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, the Nicaraguan Society of Gynecology and Obstetrics and a group of Nicaraguan parliamentarians. They agreed on the need for the European Parliament to take meaningful actions, such as issuing a declaration or supporting decriminalization efforts carried out at the international level.

In 2006, Nicaragua became the third Latin-American country, after El Salvador and Chile, to criminalize abortions under all circumstances; the laws had previously made an exception for therapeutic abortion, or abortions performed to save a woman’s life or health, or in the case of rape, incest or fetal malformation. This September, the Nicaraguan National Assembly rejected a vote to make an exception for therapeutic abortion in its new penal code. 

Even before the law, pregnancy was dangerous in Nicaragua. Women in Nicaragua are more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than they are almost anywhere else in the Americas. The ban on therapeutic abortion will only cause more deaths. More than 82 maternal deaths had been registered in Nicaragua since the change. During this same period, indirect obstetric deaths, or deaths caused by illnesses aggravated by the normal effects of pregnancy and not due to direct obstetric causes, have doubled.

But restrictive abortion laws do force women to seek services that are often unsafe, and unsafe abortions kill nearly 70,000 women each year. The harsh penalties associated with providing an abortion in Nicaragua will continue to have a “chilling effect,” discouraging women with pregnancy-related complications from seeking health care and health-care providers from treating pregnant women. The penalties will also ensure that only the most desperate, least established providers will be willing to provide abortions.

A report by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute, published in the October 13 issue of the Lancet, found that global abortion rates are similar regardless of whether a country has restrictive or open reproductive health laws. Worldwide, abortion rates were lowest in Western Europe, where contraceptive services are widespread, and abortion services are legal and accessible.

Since the National Assembly’s latest vote, Ipas-Central America has been working to raise awareness of the importance of therapeutic abortion. In October, Ipas-Central America published "Los rostros detrás de las cifras" ("The faces behind the numbers"), a document that highlights the consequences the ban has on Nicaraguan women’s lives and health. In September, the group helped release "La vida...un derecho de TODAS las mujeres" ("Life…a right of ALL women"), a 15-minute documentary examining how the ban violates women’s rights, throughout Nicaragua.

For more information, contact:
Kirsten Sherk
Senior Associate, Media Relations
e-mail: sherkk@ipas.org
phone: 919.960.5612
fax: 919.929.0258