More Bad News for Repro Rights

Nicaragua will likely ban abortion today. Leaders in the Catholic Church have helped to draft and promote the new law, which outlaws abortion even to save the life of the pregnant woman. Women who have abortions, and people who perform them, could face up to 30 years in prison.

The current Nicaraguan abortion law (fyi, link is in Spanish) allows for a rape and life exception, and gives abortion providers a maximum of 10 years in prison.

“The current law allows a small door in which abortions can be performed, and we are trying to close that door,” said Dr. Rafael Cabrera, an obstetrician and leader of the Yes to Life Movement. “We don’t believe a child should be destroyed under the pretext that a woman might die.”

Some pretext.

Only 24 legal abortions were performed in Nicaragua last year — compared to an estimated 32,000 illegal ones. World-wide, a woman dies every six minutes from an illegal abortion (includes a graphic, disturbing photo and is probably not work-safe). Abortion is one of the most common medical procedures in the world — 46 million abortions are performed every year. Almost half of them (20 million) are illegal. Every year, approximately 80,000 of the women who have illegal abortions in unsafe conditions die from complications of the procedure. Thousands more are injured, maimed, and treated like criminals for exercising their right to bodily autonomy.

Of course, we know which laws kill women and which ones don’t. Conservatives here and abroad, however, are taking us down a dangerous path which values fetal life over the lives of born women — and does almost nothing to lower the abortion rate. Just consider which countries have the highest rates of abortion, and which have the lowest. Brazil, for example, has a higher abortion rate than the United States (which is notably high), even though the procedure is illegal there. In many Scandanavian and other European nations, abortion is widely accessible and free — and yet, because of comprehensive sex education and birth control access, they have the lowest abortion rates in the world. Another example:

Rumania provides a unique case study of the factors that influence the use of unsafe abortion: in 1966 legal abortion was restricted and the abortion-related maternal mortality rate increased sharply, ten times higher than the average for the rest of Europe; in 1989 abortion was again made available on request and the number of maternal deaths fell sharply. By contrast the Netherlands has the lowest reported abortion rate because of a non-restrictive abortion law within a comprehensive framework that includes universal sex education in schools and easily accessible family planning services and the provision of emergency contraception. Of the 29,266 abortions performed there in 1997, the complication rate for first trimester treatments was 0,3% with no resulting deaths whatsoever.

But it’s not about the woman’s life, or even preventing abortion. It’s about asserting social control over and through women’s bodies. And it’s not just in Nicagragua.

In the United States, Oregonians and Californians are considering anti-choice legislation that would mandate parental notification for minors seeking to have abortions. I wrote about this earlier, but it’s important to note that in Oregon, the law states that minors aged 15 and up do not have to notify their parents for any type of healthcare (thanks to Rachel at the ACLU for clueing me in to this!). Measure 43 (the Oregon bill) would single out abortion as the one procedure that young women have to inform their parents about — and it puts some of those young women in harm’s way. Additionally, Measure 43 offers no exception for rape or incest — so a young woman who was impregnated by her father would have to notify him that she’s terminating the pregnancy.

Are limits on abortion the same as outright bans? Of course not. But they come from the same ideological place — and you can bet that if anti-choicers thought they could pass a law in this country banning all abortion, they’d do it in a heartbeat.

And of course we have South Dakota, which I’m not even going to bother to explain.

We hear a lot of talk these days about “modernism” and certain communities living “in the dark ages.” We see women’s rights trotted out as an excuse to invade foreign nations. And yet the same people who are quick to hold up certain religions as backwards and inherently misogynist are the same people who will embrace backwards, misogynist legislation in this country. They’re the same people who will support, draft and financially back laws like Nicaragua’s, and who wish the world looked more like El Salvador. Conservatives world-wide, including our own President and the leaders of the Catholic Church, are at best complicit in — and are at worst at fault for — the deaths and injuries of millions of women. The Nicagraguan law is an unfortunate example of their ideal: Women and doctors positioned as criminals, women stripped of their reproductive rights and facing injury or death for daring the exercise them, and women being legally positioned as less valuable than their fetuses.

But it’s all about “life,” right?

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12 comments for “More Bad News for Repro Rights

  1. October 26, 2006 at 9:24 pm

    I’d been meaning to email you guys about this, but now it’s at least semi-relevant, so I can just post it: my buddy Tom with a most excellent metaphor for wingnut thinking about women as fetusbearers.

  2. Julie
    October 26, 2006 at 9:59 pm

    God this is scary. I cannot even think of a better word than scary.

  3. CatatonicLindsay
    October 26, 2006 at 10:52 pm

    I don’t get it. If the woman dies, the baby dies.

  4. NicaKnit
    October 27, 2006 at 8:04 am

    I live in Nicaragua and have been sickened by this misleading and manipulative campaign since it began gathering strength in September, following statements in favor of a woman’s right to choose by one of the Presidential candidates. Aside from the horrifying thought of what the new law will mean for women–especially the majority poor women and girls–this is clearly a highly political maneuver designed to discredit this moderate, left-leaning candidate. The ease with which even formerly revolutionary parties have sold out women’s lives and health to gain favor with the country’s reactionary religious forces is nauseating.

    The argument made by some of those in favor of recriminalizing therapeutic abortion (legal since the late 1800s in Nicaragua) is that doctors still have the latitude to give life-saving treatment to women even if results in the termination of pregnancy–in effect saying that the abortion statute is redundant in these cases. I do not know if this will bear out in practice, and of course in any case it only addresses pregnancies where the risk is caused by an illness or condition that is separate from the pregnancy itself, such as cancer.

    The women most affected by this change in the law will be those who become pregnant by rape, incest or sexual abuse, which is a huge problem here. Approximately 30% of underage pregnancies are caused by abuse, and it is sadly not uncommon to see or read about girls as young as 11 or 12 who have been forced to carry to term. I guess it goes without saying, that even though the right to therapeutic abortion in these cases has been on the books for more than 100 years, access to this right has not really been granted, especially in recent years.

    I am heartsick and angry about both the process and outcome of this terrible decision, which was voted by the National Assembly yesterday. For those lefties out there who still think the Sandinistas will be the salvation of Nicaragua, note that the majority of votes in favor of criminalization were cast by the FSLN (28 of 52 votes cast). We deperately need a new option on the left that will truly respect women’s rights.

  5. bluefish A
    October 27, 2006 at 9:11 am

    Thank you for sharing your prespective especially since you are in the midst of it. When you said that “it is sadly not uncommon to see or read about girls as young as 11 or 12 who have been forced to carry to term-”
    I wanted to ask, what happens after these young girls give birth? Do they often keep the child or give it up for adoption? How do these girls raise these children with, I’m assuming, little or no resources?
    Also, is this as much of a class issue like it is in the States? In other words, do these draconian laws affect affluent women as much as they affect poor women?
    (I’m guessing the answer is, no…duh, but I’m curious what your take on this is).

  6. October 27, 2006 at 12:19 pm

    Hey Jill,

    I emailed you and Lauren but the email bounced :( Here’s what I wrote this morning: Nicaragua’s culture of mysogyny

  7. NicaKnit
    October 27, 2006 at 2:52 pm

    From what I have seen, many or most babies of young girls who carry to term are raised by the grandmother or other older woman in the family. Scarce resources are stretched even further to include the newborn.

    For example, about 2 weeks ago the paper ran a story about a 12-year-old in a rural area who was raped by a neighbor. Her mother took her to the only national hospital where therapeutic abortions are performed, but her case was denied (even before the law was revoked, women needed to have the approval of a full panel of 3 doctors to obtain an abortion). Since the birth of the baby, he has been raised by his grandmother within their home, but the girl refuses to ever be in his presence or even look at him. She is still deeply traumatized from the rape, of which this young child is a constant reminder. In another case, the young girl (about 14, I think) killed the infant within weeks or months of birth.

    The revocation of this law will definitely affect the poor majority of woman and girls infinitely more than women with resources. These women–including the relatives of the same legislators who approved the change–will have access to private clinics in Managua or fly to Miami or Europe should the need arise.

  8. Mike
    October 27, 2006 at 3:52 pm

    First let me say: I think abortions should be up to a woman.

    But I’m interested in reactions to the religious belief that abortion is murder, and that a fetus is a person, and no person should be sacrificed to save another, that nature should take its course.

    It seems to me there is a clear difference between “social control of women” and a genuine belief that abortion is never justified. I think that most of the time the religious aspect is used as a mask to effectuate social control of women–either purposefully or as a tactical approach to get the law passed.

    But still, what if you just believe abortion is wrong? What if you live in a country where the majority of people believe that abortion is wrong, and therefore it is banned? I’m not saying Nic. falls into this category.

    I guess that’s more fiction than reality, so maybe it doesn’t even matter, but I have pondered the thought frequently.

  9. NicaKnit
    October 27, 2006 at 5:57 pm


    I know you were directing your question more generally and not specifically to Nicaragua, but this is in fact an important part of the discussion here. We have a lot of discussion around the fact that since the end of the 19th C. Nicaragua’s constitution defines an “estado laico”, or secular state. Given the historical strength and influence of the Catholic Church, it is a distinction that is constantly under threat, as in this example.

    Even if the majority of a country is a particular religion and holds particular belief, unless that country’s government is defined as a theocracy or otherwise allows religion a role in government, the laws it defines should be based on scientific and objective criteria. In this case, using the religious belief that abortion is murder to change a 100+ year old law, will result in the deaths of untold numbers of women and girls.

  10. October 27, 2006 at 11:47 pm

    Mike, what NicaKnit said. Also, even if you have a deep conviction that abortion is just wrong, abortion when the life of the woman is at stake is often an actively good idea. No abortions ever under any circumstances? Dead woman and dead fetus. Abortions allowed when the woman’s life is in danger? The fetus is still dead but the woman remains alive. That’s one out of two alive instead of zero out of two alive. Which is a good thing, isn’t it?

    Part of the problem, I suspect, is that liberal, sympathetic doctors practising in an anti-choice legal environment are likely to take a pretty broad view of what constitutes life-threatening. Which of course makes the anti-choicers absolutely nuts, because it means that a couple of women are getting away with it. They’d rather close the ‘loophole’ altogether and ensure no sympathetic doctors can interpret the law to favour their patients. What does it matter if as another consequence, women with genuinly life-threatening health conditions will definitely die? Lots of girls and women are already dying of botched illegal abortions anyway. If maternal death distressed them, they’d be up in arms about that, instead of trying to make every woman who wants/needs an abortion go the dangerous homemade route, even if she’s guaranteed to die if she tries to carry to term.

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