Reconsidering Nicaragua’s Abortion Ban

Here's an international abortion item you won't read about in LifeSiteNews: after reflecting on it for five minutes, a range of Nicaraguan decision-makers from both the Church and the State have suddenly decided that criminalizing abortion to save a woman's life might not be such a great idea after all. Would that they had been captured by the spirit of reflection back in October, when they joined together in an unholy alliance to yank the 130-year-old therapeutic abortion provision from the Nicaraguan Penal Code in the space of a few weeks, thereby rendering the procedure illegal under any circumstances, including health- and life-threatening pregnancies.

The therapeutic abortion ban was passed by Nicaragua's National Assembly last October in a pre-election frenzy, following a major mobilization and misinformation campaign mounted by Catholic and Evangelical Church leaders and anti-abortion NGOs. The ban garnered support from three of the four leading presidential candidates, with a special push from left-wing Sandinista party leader Daniel Ortega, who went on to win the presidential election a few weeks later. It was approved by then-President Enrique Bolaños in November. For the record, the women's movement and the medical community were pretty much shut out of the entire process.

But now, several months later, it appears that a strange case of legislative buyer's remorse has set in. First, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, arguably the most influential Catholic in Nicaragua and certainly one of abortion's most vocal opponents (most famous for unilaterally excommunicating every single person involved in helping the 9-year-old Rosa obtain a safe and legal abortion after she was raped by her neighbor back in 2003), made some surprising statements last week in an interview with the Nicaraguan daily El Nuevo Diario. First, he asserted that in cases of life-threatening pregnancy, "We should make an effort to save the life of the woman and of the child," since "the woman's life is worth as much as the child's life." Strong words in a country where doctors are currently required by law to tell women with ectopic pregnancies to just wait and see. But when asked about situations where a doctor had to choose between a woman's life and the survival of the fetus, Obando y Bravo dodged, claiming that the problem doesn't exist if it's possible to save both at once, as some doctors (mostly doctors being paid by anti-abortion organizations, from what I've observed) claim.

When asked directly about what the penalty should be for therapeutic abortion, Obando y Bravo reminded readers that the penalty for abortion was ipso facto excommunication. But when pressed about the legal penalty, he refused to comment. Interesting, considering that a few short months ago the Church was requesting 20-year prison sentences for women who sought abortions in cases of life-threatening pregnancy. I don't recall reading any moderate, reticent interviews with Obando y Bravo at that time. But now that the procedure is criminalized…

Obando y Bravo also told El Nuevo Diario that the marches organized by the Church in the weeks leading up to the criminalization of therapeutic abortion were to protest abortion, not therapeutic abortion. Sorry, did you mean this march? The one that used a recruitment poster featuring a fetus over the following text: "In Nicaragua, 100 children like this one are murdered every day. Therapeutic abortion is a ruse: Abortion is murder"? Pretty nuanced messaging with respect to the distinction between therapeutic abortion and regular old abortion. Thanks for the clarification.

Finally, Obando y Bravo called for the formation of a medical conference (made up of doctors who believe it's always possible to save both the woman and the fetus, and doctors who disagree) to discuss the issue. His request has since been taken up by the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua, who have echoed Obando y Bravo's acknowledgement that women might—just might—have as much of a right to live as the fetuses growing inside of them, calling for a medical dialogue on the issue. Here's the kicker, though: are we talking about a dialogue, or a "dialogue"? Is this going to be a meeting of ethical professionals sharing informed, reality-based medical opinions, or is it going to be a panel of hand-picked ideologues in white coats, assembled to conclude that therapeutic abortion is "never medically necessary" (despite piles of evidence and mountains of reality to the contrary), and to reassure us that the Church has medicine, as well as God, on its side? Fake doctors made to order for your political agenda (like this guy and these guys) are a dime a dozen, after all.

Obando y Bravo's interview has also highlighted controversy over therapeutic abortion in the ruling Sandinista party. First, Health Minister Maritza Cuan came out against the criminalization of therapeutic abortion, demanding that doctors be consulted. Next, in an article published on Tuesday in the Nicaraguan daily La Prensa, Education Minister Miguel de Castilla raised his voice, arguing that the state had no right to legislate the issue, since it's a matter of free choice, "like the decision to believe in God or not to believe in God." Then, Managua Mayor Dionisio Marenco joined the party, arguing that the issue was neither moral, nor ideological, but merely medical: if a woman is dying, she should be saved.

So, Nicaragua's abortion ban already faces opposition from the women's movement, 19 Nicaraguan medical associations, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and 25 counts of unconstitutionality have been levelled against it via the Supreme Court. Now, Sandinista support is splintering, and the Church wants a second opinion. I'm thrilled that so much discussion and debate has sprung up around such an important issue. But you have to admit, it's also a little bit infuriating. Where were all these Sandinista philosophers when their party was rubber-stamping the therapeutic abortion ban back in October? Who was there to demand that women and doctors be heard when the National Assembly shut everyone but Church representatives out of the legislative process? And why, after mobilizing every Catholic congregation in the country to march against therapeutic abortion, is Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo's conscience suddenly acting up? Chalk it up to twenty-twenty hindsight, I guess—or, failing that, the great tradition of sacrificing women's health and/or lives to political expedience.

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