New Beginnings, Old Hypocrisies: Challenging Nicaragua’s Abortion Ban


Wednesday, January 10, the day I returned to Nicaragua after a one-month hiatus in the States, was a significant day in contemporary Latin American politics. Selected heads of state from the region and around the world had gathered in Managua to celebrate the presidential inauguration of left-wing Sandinista party leader Daniel Ortega, reelected for the first time in 16 years. Ortega's discourse has changed significantly since he was president in the 1980s – on Wednesday, his remarks focused on building strength through unity and reconciliation. He condemned the 16 previous years of conservative leadership that had widened inequalities between the rich and the poor and undermined many of the successes of the Sandinista era. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Bolivian president Evo Morales, George Bush's most outspoken critics in Latin America, also spoke at the inauguration, pledging economic and political solidarity with Nicaragua, and celebrating Ortega's victory as an important step against the marginalization of Latin American countries, and the neglect of their poorest citizens.

Something else significant happened in Nicaragua this week, though it received less coverage in the international media. On Monday, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, joined by a coalition of women's organizations, doctors, and human rights groups, marched to Nicaragua's Supreme Court to deliver an official challenge to Law 603. The Law, which was passed by the National Assembly in a pre-election frenzy this past October and approved by former president Enrique Bolaños a few weeks after Ortega won the election, makes therapeutic abortion – that is, abortion in cases where a woman's life is in danger – a crime punishable by up to 6 years in prison.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has already publicly denounced the law, arguing that it violates women's human rights and prevents doctors from being able to do their jobs, but it's not clear if the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Court will agree. After all, Ortega's strong support for the therapeutic abortion ban all but ensured its passage back in October, when he instructed Sandinista parliamentarians to vote for it in a desperate bid to curry favor with conservative Catholic and Evangelical leaders. On Wednesday, Ortega and his political allies in Latin America had strong words for the imperialist forces currently threatening to marginalize and oppress the vulnerable and the unrepresented across Latin America. But the abortion ban does just that, disproportionately targeting poor women, young women, and women living in rural areas – in short, women with neither the money nor the connections to obtain a safe illegal abortion or fly to Miami for a safe legal one. Ortega may be willing to stand up to the United States, but is he strong enough to stand up for women? Only time will tell.

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