(WOMENSENEWS)–Months after Nicaragua’s legislative and executive branches approved a blanket ban on abortion, international reproductive rights advocates are setting their sights on the country’s judicial branch.
The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, a coalition of Nicaraguan organizations from the human rights, women’s rights and medical communities, launched a constitutional challenge to the law on Jan. 8. The Supreme Court has agreed to consider the case and is expected to issue a ruling in the end of April or early May.
The law bans all abortions, including so-called therapeutic abortions that can save a woman’s life. Previously, the Central American nation allowed abortion if at least three doctors certified that the procedure was necessary to save a woman’s life and the woman secured the consent of a partner or relative.
Opponents of the new law argue that it violates women’s right to life, health and privacy. They say the high court should overturn it because it goes against treaties signed by Nicaragua that guarantee those rights.
“Because Nicaragua signed regional and international treaties, they have an obligation to respect international law,” said Lilian Sepulveda, a legal adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights, an advocacy group in New York.
Signed into law in November by former President Enrique Bolanos, the law carries stiff penalties, including prison terms, for medical personnel and women who have abortions.
Vulnerable to Religious Pressure
Marta Maria Blandon, Central American director of Ipas, a group in Chapel Hill, N.C., that advocates against unsafe abortion, said those pressing for repeal are facing justices who could be vulnerable to religious pressure.
“There is a possibility that what happened in October with the influence of the Catholic Church could happen again with this case,” she said, referring to religious leaders’ successful efforts last fall to persuade lawmakers to ban all abortions.
Susan Yoshihara is executive vice president of Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute in New York. “Nicaragua as a sovereign state should have the right to make their own laws,” she said.
Yoshihara doubts the law will increase the country’s rate of maternal mortality, as opponents have warned.
Reliable statistics don’t exist, she says, making it impossible for abortion rights supporters to assert that more women will die as a result of the ban on therapeutic abortion. And she calls “fictional” the pressure doctors come under when faced with the choice to save the life of the mother or abort a fetus.
“A good doctor takes the Hippocratic oath,” she said. “He is going to save the woman’s life. It’s extremely unfortunate when the child has to die, but they do it all the time.”
Pope Benedict XVI strengthened the resolve of anti-abortion rights activists on March 13, when he issued an apostolic exhortation–a 140-page policy statement derived from the consensus of a bishops’ conference held last year–reaffirming the church’s stance against abortion and calling on Catholic lawmakers around the world “to introduce and support laws inspired by values grounded in human nature.”
Planning for International Appeal
If the Supreme Court rules against them, reproductive rights activists say they will turn to international human rights courts such as the United Nations Human Rights Commission in New York or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous organ of the Organization of American States, based in Washington, D.C.
The Inter-American Commission gave activists a positive signal last December when it issued a statement declaring that Nicaragua’s ban goes against international law and threatens women’s rights.
Advocates also see reason for optimism in recent international human rights cases.
In 2006, Mexico settled a case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, conceding that it had violated the rights of a 13-year-old who was denied an abortion after being raped. And in 2005, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights ruled that the rights of a 17-year-old Peruvian woman had been violated when she was denied the opportunity to abort a fetus with a fatal anomaly.
In Mexico City, the municipal assembly has introduced a bill to legalize abortion within the first three months of pregnancy. Supporters of the bill announced this week that they have enough votes to guarantee passage and expect the law to come into effect later this year, but Catholic Church leaders have vowed to block it, according to press reports.
To prepare for the Supreme Court case in Nicaragua, international reproductive rights advocates are readying public relations and grassroots campaigns to build public pressure against the law in the heavily Catholic country.
“We are following very closely the cases where women are dying,” said Blandon. She and other activists plan to use the information in their case before the Nicaraguan Supreme Court and other international human rights bodies.
Collecting Case Studies
There is no official data about the number of maternal deaths resulting from the new law, but opponents of the ban are sifting through news accounts and examining medical records to find evidence of maternal deaths, stories they hope will turn judicial and public opinion against the law.
One such example is that of Maria Mora Valle, who claims in a Feb. 7 story in El Nuevo Diario, a major daily newspaper in Nicaragua, that her daughter’s Jan. 30 death could have been avoided if the new law hadn’t banned therapeutic abortion.
More than 30,000 Nicaraguan women have abortions annually, according to Ipas. Actual records from Nicaragua’s Ministry of Health show a far lower number, but those do not account for the vast majority of Nicaraguan women who do not seek health care for abortions.
Members of the United Nations committee that oversees the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women criticized Nicaragua in January for its lack of official studies on abortion and for its failure to clear up a growing backlog of bills that would support women’s rights.
With an average per capita annual income of $910 in 2005, Nicaragua’s poverty, among Western hemisphere countries, is only surpassed by Haiti, according to the World Bank.
The effect of such scant resources, women’s rights activists say, is that women are often marginalized.
“There is no political will on the part of the national government to promote women’s participation or women’s rights beyond discourse,” said Maria Eugenia Lopez, president of Grupo Venancia, a prominent Nicaraguan women’s rights group, during the U.N. hearings. “It is up to us to coordinate efforts to ensure that women get into positions of power and are supported in their efforts.”
Toyin Adeyemi is an independent writer based in New York; Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.
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