Being able to choose whether or not to have an abortion is a choice many countries take for granted. There are campaigns promoting pro-choice or pro-life, but when it is a medical emergency and you do not have time to make a choice, your life is in the doctor’s hands. In Nicaragua, some women would give anything to be able to have the abortion ban in their country lifted. It is more for them than just an unwanted pregnancy that accidently happened. In many cases an abortion could save their lives. The maternal mortality rate has increased greatly since the abortion ban went into effect in 2008. Since it is illegal to harm a fetus in any way, the maternal mortality rate could only rise. I will be using the feminist approach to explain the abortion ban in Nicaragua. I will also look at social determinants of income and education as well as touch on how a cultural and political determinant worked together in banning abortions.
The overall abortion ban will criminalize women who obtain the abortion and the physician who provides it (Getgen, 2008). All abortion is illegal whether it is a therapeutic abortion for the mother’s health or an abortion due to rape or incest. A Nicaraguan doctor, Leonel Arguello, said “I know of several cases where women with cancer and kidney problems died because they could not get treatment. If they could have had therapeutic abortions, they would still be alive” (Moloney, 2009). By banning abortion, Nicaraguan women’s rights are depleted, which is promised in international treaties. “Nicaragua’s abortion laws now rank among the most restrictive in the world” (Getgen, 2008).
When the law was first passed in 2006, there were provisions that could allow therapeutic abortions if the pregnant girl or woman’s health was at risk and if three doctors agreed on it but after the 2008 amendment changes, the total abortion ban went into effect. Reviewing the anthropological theories, I will look at the feminist theory to explain the abortion ban from a gender perspective. Feminist theories can be used to explain how institutions operate with normative gendered assumptions and selectively reward or punish gendered practices (Carlson and Ray, 2011). Whether it is legal or not in a country, an abortion will be a procedure the woman has to go through. If a Nicaraguan pregnant woman has been sexually abused by a man and becomes pregnant, she is denied of any treatment she may want. The abortion ban among women is a punishment to the female gender. Amnesty International, a global movement campaign to end abuse of human rights discussed the abortion ban saying the 2008 revision is gender-discriminatory, denying women and girls treatment, which only they need. They go on to support the female gender by saying, “Only women and girls risk physical and mental suffering or losing their lives as a result of delays in or denial of medical treatment if complications arise during pregnancy. Only women and girls are compelled to continue a medically dangerous or unwanted pregnancy or face imprisonment. Only women and girls suffer the mental anguish and physical pain of an unsafe abortion, risking their health and life in the process” (Amnesty International, 2009). The abortion ban is clearly a feminist situation because it is focused around gender inequality. An abortion does not physically affect a man. Emotionally, it may affect him in rare situations. The leading idea behind Nicaragua’s abortion ban being a feminist movement is because of who band abortions: a man. When a medical procedure is for one specific gender, how can it be banned and be looked at as ethical. Women’s reproductive functions have always been more acknowledged than their productive roles in society (Alidou and Niehof, 2013).
The abortion ban is a direct result of anti-feminism in Nicaragua. Karen Kampwirth explained the public battle of abortion between feminist and antifeminist forces. Before the 2006 fight over therapeutic abortions, a nine-year old girl named Rosa was a victim of rape and attention was focused on her. “Feminists ultimately won that one, in two ways: first, after months of public conflict, Rosa had a therapeutic abortion, in the dead of the night, and second, most Nicaraguans (64 percent according to one poll) thought that a nine-year-old should not be forced to carry a pregnancy to term” (Villegas, 2003). Feminists eventually lost because when therapeutic abortions became a public debate it was focused on the hundreds of women and girls who had life-threatening pregnancies every year, not just nine-year-old Rosa.
I have read about many cases where a therapeutic abortion would have saved lives. ABC news reported a case where a woman was rejected chemotherapy for her cancer because she was 10 weeks pregnant. The cancer was putting the woman’s health and life at risk but since she was pregnant, she has no other option. This is not saying she would have an abortion if she could, it is all her choice, but ultimately if she lives long enough to have the child, the child may be sick from the cancer and/or the mother may not live after the child is born. The woman with cancer was hospitalized for a month, but the doctors were not allowed to do anything to her including give her any pain medicine in fear of damaging the fetus. If any pain medicine was given and the fetus was harmed in any way, the doctors and the mother would go to jail. Next, look at Olga Reyes of Nicaragua who suffered from an ectopic pregnancy right after the abortion ban law went into effect. An ectopic pregnancy is where the fetus grows outside the uterus and puts the mother at very high risk of bleeding. She passed away from the pregnancy but if it had been a year earlier, she would still be alive because of an abortion. And lastly the abortion ban even affects women who have miscarriages. 22-year-old Francis Zamora died of a miscarriage and left behind three children. Her mother explained, “They let my daughter die, the doctors at the Alemán [Hospital] told me that they could not do the curettage [legrado] until she expelled the fetus. She suffered from when we arrived on the January 25 in the morning, until four in the afternoon the next day when she expelled the fetus. … They told me they could not do anything, that the laws in the country had changed and that they had to wait until the fetus came out on its own. Maybe if they had done the curettage earlier, she would not have died” (Sirias, 2007). These stories show how strict the abortion ban is in Nicaragua. Any harm to the fetus will criminalize the pregnant girl or woman and the doctor. The fear in doctors has risen greatly due to the consequences of them practicing medicine on anyone pregnant.
Sexual assaults are a leading cause of pregnancy in Nicaragua and girls as young as nine are victims. These assaults can be from family and friends leading to a pregnant girl or woman carrying their brother or sister. “Women or girls who become pregnant as a result of sexual violence must have access to support services, including access to safe and legal abortion, treatment for physical injuries and sexually transmitted infections, advice and support on pregnancy prevention and management, and counseling and social support” (Amnesty International, 2009). The abortion ban denies victims of the freedom to decide for themselves on how to respond to a pregnancy from sexual assault. If the victim were to decide against the pregnancy, she would face criminal charges.
With Nicaragua being one of the poorest nations, the social determinants of low-income and little education raise concern for unwanted pregnancies. As I discovered in week one from UNICEF’s country statistics, the economics in Nicaragua were not very strong and about 11% of people are below the poverty line only taking home $1.25 a day. Same with education, although in urban areas children are attending school, there is a gap that shows a decline in rural children attending school. The lack of education and income could be a leading factor into unwanted pregnancies. As far as sexual violence, sometimes you have no way around it but still the prevention could be taught. Learning that sexual violence happens within families makes me refer back to a post I wrote about violence among women where I brought up the idea about violence being a cycle within a family. It is looked at as the normal way of life and the children learn from the adults on what they believe is to be right. This goes for sexual assault, boys may be watching and learning of their fathers or other men’s actions and they see this as normal. With having an overall abortion ban in Nicaragua, it is scary to think children may see unwanted pregnancies as normal because of the risk there is. In 2010, UNICEF declared the maternal mortality death rate 1 in 350. This rate shows that the abortion ban has had a very negative effect on the health of women.
Nearly 59% of Nicaragua’s population is Roman Catholic (Glenwick, 2007). If a cultural and political determinant were to be viewed in the abortion ban it would be linked to the church and election. In 2006, Daniel Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo often would speak on his behalf in regards to therapeutic abortion. She stated, “Precisely because we have faith, because we have religion; because we are believers, because we love God above all things. … For those reasons we also defend, and we agree completely with the Church and the churches that abortion is something that affects women fundamentally, because we never get over the pain and the trauma that an abortion leaves us! When people have had, or have had to resort to that, they never get over it. And this pain is something that we don’t want for anyone. … The [Sandinista] Front, the Great Nicaragua Unified Triumphs, says “No to abortion, yes to life!” (Kampwirth, 2008). Murillo’s words shifted the Sandinista party because when the political party was in office before, it never legalized abortions but therapeutic abortions were not opposed. The Sandinista revolution from 1979-1990 was accountable for mobilizing women and it indirectly set the stage for the emergence of a significant feminist movement. So seeing Murillo’s support for banning abortions but representing the Sandinista party altered principles. However, there are Nicaraguan’s who doubted that the abortion ban was made strictly on religious terms; rather the political side had effects. “Some Nicaraguans believe the country’s strict abortion laws were endorsed by the country’s major political parties to secure votes during the last presidential elections and gain the support of the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church” (Moloney, 2009). Leonel Arguello stated, “The abortion ban is the result of a political deal between the Church and the Sandinista ruling party. It was done to ensure that the Sandinistas could secure votes they needed to get into power, so it’s unlikely that the ban will be overturned while they remain in power.” 2016 will be the next election and the next hope for Nicaraguan women receiving equal rights and removing the abortion ban.
The total abortion ban in 2008 devastated many pregnant women and girls. Reviewing the environmental social determinants of income and education in Nicaragua, since the nation is so poor, showed pregnancies are not preventable. Women and girls are violently attacked and contraception is not found in poverty-stricken areas. The ruling under cultural and political determinants raises a flag on why the banning of all abortions, therapeutic most recently, was made. By banning abortion, the country may think they have saved lives by stopping unsafe abortions, but really they are putting more pregnancies in harm. If a pregnant girl or woman is sick and aborting the pregnancy is the best option, it will not happen in Nicaragua. In most cases this will lead to the death of the pregnant girl or woman and the death of the fetus. In my opinion, gender cannot be viewed equally in an abortion situation. Women’s rights are fully exploited by banning abortion. The banning of therapeutic abortions fully took away an equal right Nicaraguan women had in the medical world. Looking back at the real stories from Rosa, Olga, Francis, and the young woman with cancer, the abortion ban singles out women in a negative way forcing them to live with the harmful consequences of a life-threatening pregnancy.
- Aizenman, N.C. “Nicaragua’s Total Ban on Abortion Spurs Critics.” The Washington Post. November 28, 2006.
- Alidou, Guirguissou Maboudou and Anke Niehof. Gender, Technology and Development, November 2013; vol. 17, 3: pp. 313-335.
- Amnesty International. The Total Abortion Ban in Nicaragua: Women’s lives and health endangered, medical professionals criminalized. 2009. <http://www.amnestyusa.org/pdfs/amr430012009en.pdf>
- Carlson, Jennifer and Raka Ray. Feminist Theory. Oxford Bibliography. July 27 2011.
- Getgen, Jocelyn E. Reproductive Injustice: An Analysis of Nicaragua’s Complete Abortion Ban. 41 Cornell Int’l L.J. (2008)
- Glenwick, Michael. To Risk Not Saving a Life: Abortion Ban in Nicaragua and its Societal Implications. Washington: The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 2007. ProQuest.
- Houston, Claire. “HOW FEMINIST THEORY BECAME (CRIMINAL) LAW: TRACING THE PATH TO MANDATORY CRIMINAL INTERVENTION IN DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CASES.” Michigan Journal of Gender & Law2 (2014): 217-72. ProQuest. Web. 20 Aug. 2015.
- Hutchinson, Courtney. “Nicaragua’s Anti-Abortion Policy Endangers Women, Criminalizes Doctors, Experts Say.” ABC News. March 1, 2010.
- Kampwirth, Karen. Latin American Perspectives, November 2008; vol. 35, 6: pp. 122-136.
- Moloney, Anastasia. “Abortion Ban Leads to More Maternal Deaths in Nicaragua.” The Lancet 374.9691 (2009): 677. ProQuest.
- Sirias, Tania. “‘Nuevas Leyes’ la dejaron morir.” El Nuevo Diario, February 7, 2007.
- UNICEF. “At a Glance: Nicaragua. Statistics.” December, 27, 2013. <http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/nicaragua_statistics.html>
- Villegas S., Jairo. “Reaparece Rosa.” La Prensa, March 16 2003.