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Therapeutic abortion is in the news again

Therapeutic abortion is in the news again

by Karla Jacobs, October 2nd 2008

It is election time in Nicaragua and therapeutic abortion is in the news again. To the dissapointment of many Nicaraguan and international human rights activists the leaders of the FSLN and the pro FSLN media have confirmed their position in favor of the blanket abortion ban which came into force in October 2006. What is more, an all out war of words between government officials and the Nicaraguan women's rights activists leading the campaign to legalize therapeutic abortion (who are in their majority militants and supporters of the Sandinista Renovation Movement, MRS) has been unleashed. Vindictive personal attacks, bitter comments and dishonest reporting have, to a greater or lesser extent, characterized both sides' treatment of the issue and the debate surrounding it over the last few weeks.

For many North American and European social justice activists involved in Nicaragua the FSLN's position on therapeutic abortion is not just a disappointment but also incomprehensible. However, if one takes a close and unprejudiced look at historical and cultural factors not immediately obvious or pleasing to most "cheles," one discovers many reasons why the FSLN's position on the issue could be considered a logical reaction to circumstance.

Brief history of recent events surrounding therapeutic abortion legislation

On October 26 2006, ten days before the last presidential election took place, a law was passed by the National Assembly outlawing all forms of abortion, even those carried out to preserve the psychological or physical health of pregnant women and girls. The law was passed with the support of deputies from the three main Nicaraguan parties with representation in the Legislative: the FSLN, the PLC (Constitutional Liberal Party) and the ALN (Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance). That day Nicaragua joined the only other two countries in the world (Chile and El Salvador) where women and girls have no access to legal abortions even if the practice is necessary to preserve their own lives.

The vote took place after a sustained public campaign organized and financed by the Catholic and Evangelical Churches. The campaign culminated on October 6 with a massive protest march (independent sources estimated over 100,000 participants) and the presentation of a petition to the National Assembly with 290,000 signatures demanding that therapeutic abortion be outlawed.

Subsequently the then president Enrique Bolaños, representative of the most conservative faction of the Nicaraguan right wing, forced the proposal of a blanket ban onto the National Assembly agenda. Numerous national and international organizations as well as several deputies within the Assembly called for the debate to be postponed until after the elections given the highly controversial and emotive nature of the issue concerned. These calls were ignored and the proposed ban was voted in with a large majority.

The passing of this legislation was the result of a combination of years of campaigning by the Catholic and Evangelical Churches and a unique historical moment (the run up to the 2006 elections) when Ortega and the FSLN, after sixteen years in opposition, knew that victory was just a few days away if they played their cards right. Unfortunately for the cause of women's rights as we know it in the West, the FSLN playing their cards right in October 2006 meant voting for a blanket ban on abortion.

Nicaraguans support blanket ban

A poll carried out by the M and R consultants in April 2007 found that 69% of the population supported the ongoing penalization of therapeutic abortion. When asked whether a therapeutic abortion should be carried out on a woman with a high risk pregancy who could die as a result of complications relating to her pregnancy 58.5% said no. These statistics may sadden and frustrate those who feel committed to the cause of women's right in Nicaragua. The same people would perhaps be more deeply saddened by Nicaraguan women's groups estimate that over 110 women have died as a result of the blanket ban. Under such circumstances, one finds oneself questioning the virtue of political decisions based on public will.

During a meeting with representatives of European donor country governments in January 2007 during which the principal issue discussed was the therpeutic abortion ban, President Daniel Ortega implied that his party's position on abortion over the years has deliberately reflected the Nicaraguan population's take on the issue:

"When we were in the middle of the revolution ... with the youth and women incorporated, there were comrades that proposed we approve abortion, one step beyond therapeutic abortion. We carried out detailed surveys and found that 99% of the population was opposed to that proposal. And when the issue begins to be discussed again [in 2006] ... we did another survey which found that 80% of the population was against abortion."

Many international critics of Ortega identifying themselves as left wingers have suggested that the FSLN position on therapeutic abortion is cynical and opportunistic. The Guardian journalist Rory Carroll, for example, had this to say about the FSLN decision to vote in favor of the blanket ban: "Ortega, desperate to regain power, mobilised the Sandinistas behind ... Cardinal [Miguel Obando y Bravo's] campaign [to outlaw all forms of abortion] and helped get the ban enacted just days before the [presidential election]. The former revolutionary, now reinvented as a devout Catholic, was rewarded with the presidency." (from The Guardian, October 8 2007)

Carroll's disparaging description of Ortega's part in the passing of the legislation may appeal to those Westerners who were outraged at FSLN support of the legislation. It may also appeal to the minority in Nicaraguan society who oppose the ban. One has to remind oneself, however, that no matter how uncomfortable it makes one feel, it is part of Ortega's job to appeal to the set of cultural and moral values held by the majority of the Nicaraguan people.

The MRS is the only party that publicly supports the overturning of the blanket ban. The MRS loses nothing in doing so given that the most part of the 7% of Nicaraguan society it represents (mainly members of the managerial and intellectual classes who identiy themselves as leftwingers but do not identify with Ortega's anti-imperialist, populist rhetoric), would mainly be opposed to the ban anyway. When political decisions are in line with one's own beliefs, one seldom describes those decisions as opportunistic.

Nicaraguans base moral code on natural law

It is often the case that internacionalistas underestimate the profound influence the Catholic Church and the other churches active in Nicaragua have had and continue to have in forming society's moral codes. It is hard for Europeans, brought up in post feminist revolution societies, for example, to relate to a people that opposes the practise of an abortion which is necessary to save a woman's life. Ideas amd perceptions one assumes to be common sense often turn out to be culturally inherited.

A fundamental aspect of Nicaraguans' opposition to any form of abortion is the idea that God is the only being with the right to end a life, in other words, natural law. This idea is widely rejected in the West where medical intervention is almost always preferred over the natural course of any given disease or condition. In many parts of Nicaragua, however, people take this idea to an extreme and opt not to seek medical attention, even in the case of a medical emergency. The case of an 87 year old woman whom we can call Doña Julia illustrates this:

Julia lives in a remote rural community in the municipality of San Nicolas in the department of Estelí Recently she was very sick with terrible stomach pains and unable to eat for several weeks. Her daughters called in the local pastor who brought members of the community to the house to pray for her every night. When Julia began vomiting blood two of her eight children insisted she be taken to the nearest hospital, which is five hours away on foot. The other six together with their local Pastor dismissed the idea urging for Julia's fate to be left to God. In the end the two were able to persuade the others to let them seek medical advice. Julia was brought to Esteli San Juan de Dios hospital on horseback. She was later diagnosed with cancer.

If a proportion of the Nicaraguan population is hesitant to seek medical intervention for cases such as these, it seems logical that the same people would consider medical intervention which provokes the death of an unborn child very undesirable indeed.

Dishonest church campaign creates misunderstanding of issues involved

Another factor leading to such widespread support of the therapeutic abortion ban among ordinary Nicaraguans is the dishonest and manipulative manner in which the Catholic and other churches carried out the anti-abortion campaign in 2006 and continue to discuss the issue. Church representatives are loath to use the word "therapeutic" during any discussions on the matter. Embrions are refered to as children and images of foetuses of around six month gestation are used on church leaflets and other publicity about the issue. The campaign's main slogan, which can be seen across the country on banners and stickers on street walls, in community halls and in people's homes, is "abortar es matar" (abortion kills).

Media outlets controlled by forces which favor the penalization of therapeutic abortion (La Prensa, Channel 2, Channel 4, weekly newspaper El 19 and dozens of local radios, for example) repeat this same vocabulary reinforcing misinformation about the issue.

As UN representative in Nicaragua Alfredo Missair has commented, "unfortunately therapeutic abortion is misrepresentated as an abortion issue, when it is really about interupting a pregnancy that could cause the death of the mother and baby." (El Nuevo Diario, October 31 2007)

Suspicion about foreign financing of reproductive rights programs

There is a line of thought within religious circles in Nicaragua that the promotion of reproductive rights is part of a scheme by rich countries to control population growth in impoverished countries. Elizabeth de Rojas, representative of one faction of the Nicaraguan evangelist church, believes that rich countries are very concerned about population growth and are using the international forums which they control to promote contraception, abortion and homosexuality as a way of rapidly diminishing global population growth (El 19, edition no. 6). According to de Rojas this explains why foreign (mainly European) governments spend so much money on promoting the use of contraception and the practise of abortion in Nicaragua and other parts of the majority world.

Reverend Omar Duarte, of the Evangelist Ministry "Rivers of Living Water" agrees that certain foreign aid agencies are the ones which have "created the pro-abortion campaigns" in Nicaragua (El 19, edition no. 6).

The church's manipulation of society's suspicions about birth control programs has been going on for over two decades. In 1983 the Episcopal Conference of Bishops in Nicaragua denounced, in the institution's annual message to the nation, that programs promoting the use of contraception and other reproductive rights were being imposed on Nicaragua by foreign cooperation agencies. On several occasions the Catholic Church has stated its disapproval of rich countries conditioning aid on the implementation of birth control programs.

In order to tune into this way of thinking one must consider for a moment the widespread suspicions society had about methods of contraception in the US and Western European countries during the decades after the pill was first introduced. These were societies where feminist revolutions had had a huge impact on the way people thought about women, their place in society and their reproductive rights. It was the feminist movements within these societies which had felt, discussed and acted upon the need for such methods to exist.

Once one begins to ponder the entirely different set of social and historical circumstances in Nicaragua in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, reactions formerly incomprehensible start to seem like logical responses, especially given the predominance of the Roman Catholic religion. It becomes understandable that Nicaraguans should wonder why foreign governments are spending millions of dollars to stop them having babies.

Ortega's wife Rosario Murillo taps into Nicaraguan society's mistrust of feminist groups promoting reproductive rights in her recent article "the feminist connection and low intensity warfare" in which she links the women's groups who receive foreign government aid money to campaign against the blanket abortion ban (and who have declared themselves in opposition to the FSLN government) to the wider media campaign to undermine the government:

"We are faced with permanent provocation [from these women's groups ... which] take advantage of their role as political operators of [human] rights and make use of the spaces their rich friends open to them to try to change [our] cultural values and impose foreign and strange social norms on our communities and families... They proclaim abortion without respect for the culture or the collective soul of the people."

Church approval has been key element of all recent political changes

In order to understand the importance of Church approval for any mainstream political party in Nicaragua it is worth taking a brief look over the Church's unquestionable influence over the success of all major political upheavels in Nicaragua's recent history. Shortly before the triumph of the Popular Sandinista Revolution in 1979 Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, aware of the inevitability of the overthrow of Somoza's government, made a public call to the Nicaraguan people to take up arms against the dictatorship. The Catholic Church hierarchy later became one of the most important promoters of the cause of the Contra counter-revolutionary war of the 1980s. In the 1990s and early 2000s the Catholic Church hierarchy maintained an open and fervent anti FSLN stance aiding three consecutive right wing presidents into power. Ortega and the FSLN knew, therefore, that in order to take the presidency in 2006 one of the most important things to do would be to secure the approval of the Catholic Church.

Aparicio Lopez Cruz is a 48 year old farmer from the north of Nicaragua. A life long supporter and militant of the FSLN, he was the coordinator of civilian defense in his community and four other surrounding communities during the Contra War. Lopez explains his take on the FSLN's relationship with the Church now and over the last few decades:

"In my opinion, the FSLN has always been with God, but for the Empire, for our adversaries it is inconvenient to publicise that fact. They have to say that the FSLN is an atheist organization, that the FSLN is with the devil, so that, by doing so, they can take advantage of the sensitivity of the impoverished majority's Christian faith and create opposition to the FSLN. That is what I observed to be the case in the 1980s and right up until a couple of years ago.

[During the Contra War,] mass was not just a Christian sermon, only about 50% of mass was ever dedicated to talking about God, the other 50% was dedicated to anti government propaganda, [for example] lamenting all the deaths and cursing those responsible, and they referred to the FSLN, without mentioning its name, as being responsible for all the deaths. And [it worked] ... it captured people's minds, a grieving people, a people that was losing their children and the Church was saying to them, for example, "we ask God that one day may He touch the hearts of these men that think they have the right to take away the lives of so many people, when only God has the right to do so."

When asked if he sees a link between the FSLN's position on therapeutic abortion and the need to maintain good relations with the church, Lopez had this to say:

"I think the government's slogan - government of unity and national reconciliation - is very apt considering the situation we are confronting in Nicaragua. I think that [the FSLN] is trying to look at Nicaraguans' problems taking into account the opinion of the Nicaraguan people. And I think that it is important that everyone should be taken into account and that everyone needs to give something so that we can advance towards some kind of socio economic development. It is really important that [the FSLN] has good relations with the different authorities that represent the country. The problem is, that the thing that has to give, what is it? And how much damage does it cause you? And how much good does it bring you? But the fact is that something has to give, that is unquestionable.

By supporting [the blanket ban on abortion] ... a number of women will die. But it also makes it possible to help thousands and thousands of children and thousands and thousands of mothers to have a better life through government social programs."

The issue of therapeutic abortion is so controversial and causes such strong gut reactions from most Nicaraguans that the chances of the country's political leaders creating an adequate environment for an objective and meaningful debate on the matter are slim. In the meantime it would seem apt for internacionalistas to continue to support all those parts of the FSLN government program which are making a real difference to the people they claim to be in solidarity with.

Internacionalista icon Granados praises government for programs that benefit women

Dorothea Granados, a nurse of US origin who has worked with women in rural Nicaragua for decades, came off the fence very publicly, last week, praising the government for its social programs she says make a big difference to the health and wellbeing of the women she works with. She also questioned the authority of women's groups leading the campaign to legalize therapeutic abortion in Nicaragua, which, in her opinion, "defend the interests of the US Empire which aims to destablize the Nicaraguan government" and "do not attend to the needs of women who struggle [in undignified conditions] ... every day to earn enough to buy food."

"If they care about the people, if they care about women, they need to take themselves and their money to the mountains ... to see people's needs, ... not just here in Managua with marches and protests.... The important thing here is whether or not abortion is what women need, and the women with barefeet and dirt under their nails are not interested in abortion, they are interested in food, a roof over their heads, antenatal care during the first three months of their pregnancy so that they don't die.

That is why I think that these movements are mistaken because they don't acknowledge the social programs, they don't see, for example that in Mulukuku the maternal mortality rate has dropped to zero because we are working with the Ministry of Health. They don't see the integrated care being offered to women so they can avoid falling pregnant if they don't want to. They don't see the free medicines that are given out. So I invite them to come and work with us so that they realize that there is no need for abortion." (El Nuevo Diario, September 23, 2008)


Karla Jacobs writes for

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