Nicaragua Government Seeks To Ban All Abortions

Women's health advocates are accused of committing 36,000 murders annually as the ruling party seeks to criminalize all abortions.

Nicaragua's President Arnoldo Alem�n

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — The ruling party of President Arnoldo Alemán has launched an anti-abortion campaign, seeking to outlaw all abortions and force independent women's centers to close by choking off their sustaining international contributions.

Women's leaders have issued an emergency call for assistance to their supporters overseas, seeking to raise an international outcry against the government's moves.

For 129 years Nicaragua has permitted therapeutic abortions to protect the life or health of a mother, but under a proposed new penal code these abortions would be banned and penalized along with other abortions that already are illegal, widespread and widely ignored.

The National Assembly will be debating the new penal code during the current session and the government, the Catholic Church and evangelical lawmakers want to delete the paragraph that permits therapeutic abortions. Conservatives also demand revocation of the “legal status” of some women's clinics, thereby making them ineligible to receive foreign donations.

Loss of legal status would mean almost certain closure of women's centers. It also would mean loss of publication rights, which require legal status, and the withdrawal of printed materials about family planning, legal rights and recourse, sex discrimination, family violence and other issues.

The centers, identified with advocacy and activism, serve poor women in particular and rankle conservative authorities, lawmakers and church officials.

Some women's health centers currently perform therapeutic abortions. The vast majority of abortions, however, are non-therapeutic and performed mainly by untrained people under dangerous and unsanitary conditions.

The previous government attributed the number of illegal abortions to unintended pregnancies in a country where poverty is extreme, educational levels are low and access to contraceptives is limited.

In 1995 the government estimated the number of illegal abortions at 36,000 a year. No current estimate of therapeutic abortions is available, but the figure of 36,000 is often cited by fulminating lawmakers in the National Assembly.

The anti-abortion campaign was kicked off in late May when the president's spokesman, Luis Mora, a leading television talk show host, used government-controlled air waves to denounce feminists and activists and accused them of murdering 36,000 fetuses.

National statistics indicate that Nicaragua probably has the highest pregnancy rate in Latin America and teen-age mothers account for one-quarter of all births each year. About 27 percent of the girls between 15 and 19 become mothers annually. The maternal mortality rate is 160 per 1,000 live births; the infant mortality rate is 43 per 1,000 live births-both statistics considered high for developing countries.

In a bizarre twist in the abortion battle, a prominent feminist and health center director, Dr. Ana Maria Pizarro, has been charged with malpractice in connection with complications arising from a Caesarian section birth performed in a private clinic by a doctor associated with her. She is the director of SI Mujer, a nonprofit women's center providing family planning, education, mother and child health services and other assistance. Her organization was granted legal status in 1991.

“We are proud that 95 per cent of the women attended by us use contraceptives and thus prevent risky abortions, the most important cause of maternal mortality in hospitals,” a pamphlet published by the Pizarro's center states.

Not only was Pizarro charged with malpractice, but she also was charged with corruption before the national Anti-Corruption Commission for allegedly receiving “juicy profits” from her women's center. Her adversaries alleged that her clinic butchered aborted fetuses and sold body parts.

Pizarro has now issued a call for international support, saying she was under attack in “a campaign by the three powers of the state,” referring to the executive, legislative and judiciary. She also cited “a confusion of religious interests with public health issues” and said her organization was being used as a scapegoat.

Non-governmental organizations in the United States and Europe have sent notes of protest to the Nicaraguan government. SI Mujer and other groups are dependent upon contributions from these types of organizations.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, the government's funding arm, contributes to organizations in Nicaragua, but it does not fund centers that perform even therapeutic abortions.

Last year conservative U.S. lawmakers pushed through a law that denied aid to any international organization that uses its own, separate funds to lobby for reform of anti-abortion laws. The House of Representatives has voted to maintain restrictions in a new spending bill.

During the Sandinista era, efforts to legalize all abortions were halted early on because the revolutionary commandantes dared not incur the wrath of Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the ultra-conservative archbishop of Managua.

Obando y Bravo spearheads the conservative attack upon liberation theology in Central America. His views are similar to those of El Salvador's archbishop, Sáenz Lacalle, who recently referred to sexuality education as “infanticide.”

Ralf Leonhard is a freelance journalist writing regularly for European publications about conflicts, human rights and economic development in Central America; Chiapas, Mexico; Panama, Colombia and Haiti.