Here in Nicaragua, advocates for women's reproductive health and rights are up in arms about a recent anti-abortion statement by left-wing presidential candidate Daniel Ortega, narrowly favored to win elections this coming November. Ortega, who was President of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, is the head of the Sandinista party (Americans may recall the U.S.-backed Contra war against the Sandinistas, who originally came into power in 1979 when they overthrew the forty-year-old U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship) and a traditional opponent of Nicaragua's conservative Catholic hierarchy. During his 1979-1990 presidency, Ortega never took an official position on abortion, which has been illegal in Nicaragua under almost all circumstances for the past several decades. Throughout the 1980s, when pressed by the women's movement to do something about the growing number of Nicaraguan women regularly killed or sterilized by complications from illegal abortion, he chose instead to remind women of their reproductive responsibilities. Women were the mothers of revolutionaries, after all, and if women stopped having babies, who would fight the revolution? (Never mind that women themselves were fighting the revolution and that if a woman died or was sterilized during an illegal abortion, that made at least TWO fewer revolutionaries.) Despite the rhetoric, however, the Sandinista position on abortion always carried an air of ambiguity.
But a lot can happen in a few years…
This election year, abortion is a hot topic. In Nicaragua, therapeutic abortion is legal, provided a panel of three experts (usually all men) say it's necessary to save a woman's life or her physical or mental health. But the current government is under pressure from the Catholic church and a growing evangelical lobby to make abortion illegal under any and all circumstances, the argument being that if women aren't expected to survive a pregnancy, then that's just God's will. Laws aside, illegal abortion has always been common in Nicaragua-and the less money you have, the younger you are, and the further you live from a city, the less likely you are to survive the procedure. If you go to the emergency room with complications from an illegal procedure, you risk a criminal investigation. And as one of my colleagues here reports (speaking from personal experience), even women who wind up at the hospital with spontaneous miscarriages often get the third degree from their doctors-which must be a really nice feeling if you're in the middle of having a miscarriage.
The number of Nicaraguan women who suffer the consequences of unsafe abortion in Nicaragua hasn't changed much in the last 15 years, but a few other things have. Ortega and the Sandinistas were voted out of office in 1990, and they've been trying to get back in ever since. Today, left-wing Ortega is busy building alliances with Nicaragua's conservative Catholic hierarchy in an effort to build his voting base (sound familiar?). It should come as no surprise that support for the so-called "culture of life" is a top priority for Ortega's new political bedfellows-so last week Ortega joined two of the four other presidential candidates in expressing his opposition to abortion under any circumstances.
Tough luck for the countless Nicaraguan women who find themselves with unwanted or life-threatening pregnancies-including the eight-months-pregnant 13-year-old girl who made headlines this week when her parents finally got around to denouncing the neighbor who raped her. Poverty is widespread, public health services are scarce, comprehensive sex ed is non-existent, contraception is often inaccessible, you need a note from your husband to get sterilized, and abortion is illegal. But at least the culture of life knows no borders.