In October 2006, Nicaragua became one of a handful of countries, including Chile and El Salvador, where abortion is illegal without exception. This included the abolition of what Nicaraguans call “therapeutic abortion,” that is, legal abortion under very limited circumstances, especially to save the life of the pregnant woman. A little more than year later, at least 80 women have died because of the new law.1 Most died as a result of a miscarriage, like 22-year-old Francis Zamora, who died in a hospital in January 2007, leaving behind three children. “They let my daughter die,” Zamora’s mother told a newspaper, recounting how the doctors had said the laws had changed and that they were required to wait until Francis expelled the fetus before they could perform a lifesaving D and C procedure.
The vote in the Nicaraguan National Assembly that resulted in the new law took place 10 days before the presidential election. The unanimous votes of representatives from the traditional party of the revolution, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista Front for National Liberation, or FSLN), were critical. Without them, the exception to save the life of the woman, a reform dating to the late-19th-century Liberal revolution of José Santos Zelaya, would not have been overturned. Although the Sandinista representatives had always upheld therapeutic abortion in previous years, they voted against it in 2006 out of fear that the party would otherwise lose the upcoming election.
The subsequent victory of Daniel Ortega, the FSLN’s longtime leader and candidate, after 16 years out of power, seemed to confirm this. But there is little reason to believe that FSLN votes in favor of the abortion ban affected the electoral outcome. Most of the Sandinistas I interviewed disagreed with the abolition of therapeutic abortion, but they voted for the FSLN anyway. Similarly, none of the anti-abortion activists I interviewed gave me reason to believe they had voted for the FSLN. In fact, many suggested that the FSLN’s vote against therapeutic abortion was only a response to the election, so they voted for one of the two right-wing parties (the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista or PLC, and the Alianza Liberal Nicaraguense or ALN), which better represented their values.
Nationwide, none of the FSLN’s strategies—expensive advertising, the rhetoric of love and reconciliation, the electoral alliances with Contras and Somocistas, the alliance with the Catholic Church and various evangelical leaders, the vote against therapeutic abortion—seem to have made any difference. As analysts from the journal Envio noted, the FSLN “won without growing,” that is, it won with the votes of its traditionally loyal voters, and few others, and it would have lost had the right not been divided between the traditional Liberal Party and the ALN.2 But whether or not they win votes, electoral strategies have consequences. They set the stage for the government that is to follow, and they may serve to reset the balance of power among different groups in society. The gendered components of Ortega’s 2006 electoral strategy certainly had the effect of weakening feminists, who had formed part of the FSLN’s base, and strengthening anti-feminists. That strategy also had the consequence of making life more precarious for pregnant women who depend on public health services.
With Ortega’s election, Nicaragua joined a regional trend to the left, what has sometimes been called Latin America’s “pink tide.” In some countries in the region, the pink tide has brought with it a limited expansion of reproductive freedom.3 But not in Nicaragua. On the contrary, the 2006 election illustrated a second regional trend: the rise of politically sophisticated anti-feminist movements in response to the second wave of feminism. In the Nicaraguan case, these two trends are related.
In 2006, the FSLN seemed to reimagine the legacy of the revolution. And that new vision of what it meant to be a revolutionary was traditional rather than liberation-theology Catholic, anti-feminist rather than feminist. One could question in what sense this legacy of the revolution was truly revolutionary. On the billboards that sprung up everywhere in Nicaraguan cities during the months leading up to the November election, little of the FSLN’s traditional red and black was to be seen. Instead, FSLN propaganda used an array of brilliant colors, especially hot pink, and Ortega the Marxist-Leninist in military uniform was replaced by Ortega the practicing Catholic in white shirt and jeans. The rhetoric of peace and reconciliation supplanted that of anti-imperialism and class struggle. In fact, many historic enemies of the FSLN joined the Sandinistas’ electoral coalition, most prominently vice presidential candidate, and former Contra commander, Jaime Morales Carazo.
One of many signs that Ortega had changed was his marriage to Rosario Murillo, his partner of 27 years, in a Catholic ceremony presided over by former archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, a little more than a year before the 2006 election. Not only did Ortega marry Murillo, the mother of six of his eight children, but he often allowed her to speak for him. Ortega was conspicuously silent when his wife, who also headed his electoral campaign, advocated the abolition of therapeutic abortion, firmly allying herself with the Catholic Church.
In an interview on Radio Ya, Murillo was asked about the position of the Gran Unidad Nicaragua Triunfa (Great Nicaragua Unified Triumphs, the electoral coalition to which the FSLN belonged) on therapeutic abortion. “Precisely because we have faith, because we have religion, because we are believers, because we love God above all things . . . for those reasons we also defend, and we agree completely with the church and the churches, that abortion is something that affects women fundamentally, because we never get over the pain and trauma that an abortion leaves us!” She added, “The [Sandinista] Front, the Great Nicaragua Unified Triumphs, says no to abortion, yes to life!”4 With these words, Murillo cemented the pact with the Catholic Church, and in particular with Obando y Bravo (whom she praised elsewhere in the interview), representing a real shift in the position of the Sandinista party, which had not legalized abortion when it was in power but had never before opposed therapeutic abortion.
But despite long-standing tensions between the leadership of the FSLN and autonomous feminists, it is highly unlikely that the FSLN would have voted to abolish the exception for the mother’s life if not for the fact that the election was days away. In other words, the FSLN’s newfound opposition to therapeutic abortion does not indicate an ideological shift to the right. What it does show is that, after a decade and a half out of power, and close to a decade of political pacts with the right—with Arnoldo Alemán’s Liberal Constitutionalist party and with Obando y Bravo’s faction within the Catholic Church—the FSLN was quite willing to oppose its former base in the women’s movement, to say nothing of the vast majority of Nicaragua’s medical establishment, if that is what it took to return to power. Rather than a shift to the right, it was a shift to cynicism. It was part and parcel of the FSLN’s long-term evolution from a revolutionary party to one that is often a personal vehicle for Ortega and his family.
While the vote to abolish therapeutic abortion tells us much about the evolution of the FSLN, it perhaps tells us even more about the evolution of Nicaraguan civil society, both feminist and anti-feminist, in the years following the Sandinista revolution. By 2006, the feminist movement, one of Nicaragua’s largest and most effective social movements, was divided. There was no disagreement over the need to defend therapeutic abortion, but the movement was damaged by personality clashes and disagreements regarding language and symbolism. One position, promoted by activists in the feminist organization Puntos de Encuentro, among others, was that therapeutic abortion should be defended using “positive messages.” They participated in various vigils dressed in white and carrying candles.
“From the perspective of Puntos,” Evelyn Flores, the organization’s director of institutional relations, told me in November 2006, “it was very worrisome that other women [from the Movimiento Autonomo de Mujeres, or MAM] were calling for a carnaval-style march [i.e., dressing up in costumes]. . . . Later the MAM began to have a public presence with a message that was quite full of negativity: ‘murderers,’ ‘killers of women,’ ‘you don’t know your own laws,’ ‘don’t vote for a rapist.’ ”
Ana María Pizarro, director of the women’s clinic Sí Mujer and member of the MAM, was on the other side of this disagreement over tactics, but she also saw the divide as being over whether radical or moderate strategies were the most effective. In her opinion, the cause had been hurt by the moderation of many members of the women’s movement, who over the years took the position that “therapeutic abortion is the maximum demand, and don’t even talk about legalizing abortion.” The problem from her perspective was not that the tactics were too forceful, but that they were not forceful enough and that organized women would never successfully lobby if they continued to forgive, and vote for, the Sandinista party no matter what it did.
In contrast with the feminist movement, the anti-feminist movement had never been so united and sophisticated as it was in 2006. The activists I identify as “anti-feminist” rarely use that term to describe their own work. Instead, they call themselves pro-family or pro-life. But I contend that the term anti-feminist is appropriate for at least three reasons: First, feminist activists also favor families (albeit egalitarian ones), and their work against maternal mortality and domestic violence is clearly pro-life. Second, activists in this movement are not simply social conservatives any more than feminist activists are simply social liberals. In both cases, the movements are centrally concerned with the politics of intimacy and daily life. Finally, the term anti-feminist identifies it as a backlash movement.
Anti-feminist organizations do not compose a “movement” in the same sense that feminist organizations do. Hundreds of Nicaraguan organizations identify with the feminist movement, but a relatively small number of them actively oppose organized feminists. The most extensive list I have seen comprises nine organizations that identified themselves as pro-life and pro-family. So the feminist movement is far more significant than the anti-feminist movement if measured in terms of organizations; however, counting organizations is not the only way to gauge the strength of a movement. In fact, up until Ortega’s taking power in early 2007, the anti-feminist movement was more powerful than the feminist movement if power was measured in terms of the movement’s access to the Nicaraguan state and to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
Probably the most important source of support for the Nicaraguan anti-feminist movement is the Catholic Church as an international organization, and conservative interpretations of Catholic faith more generally. The Nicaraguan Catholic Church is divided between a conservative branch that adheres strictly to Vatican teachings regarding questions of sexuality and reproduction, and a liberation-theology branch that is more concerned with social justice than with individual sexual behavior. Many Nicaraguan feminists trace their histories as activists to the liberation theology movement and continue to identify in some way with a Catholicism informed by liberation theology. In contrast, all of the anti-feminists whom I have interviewed or whose works I have read identify strongly with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church or with conservative evangelical organizations.
Some of the most prominent leaders of the movement are active in international conservative Catholic organizations. For example, former education minister Humberto Belli and Max Padilla, former minister of the family, belong to Opus Dei, and Elida de Solórzano, an adviser to Padilla and founder of Asociación Nicaragüense de la Mujer (Nicaraguan Women’s Association, or Animu), told me she is a founding member of Ciudad de Dios, or City of God, a Catholic lay organization.5 Moreover, Nicaraguan opponents of feminism have been supported by a variety of international organizations. The U.S.-based evangelical organization Focus on the Family has provided materials to the Ministry of Education and to the Asociación Nicaragüense Provida (Nicaraguan Pro-Life Association, or Anprovida), a leading anti-abortion group.6 Vida Humana Internacional (based in Miami) and the Catholic Church also have provided money and materials to support Anprovida’s work, as members of that organization told me, and the Catholic Church in the United States has provided the model for Animu’s Proyecto Raquel, aimed at counseling women who have had abortions. Padilla has participated in the activities of the Rockford, Illinois–based World Congress of Families.7 Finally, the U.S.-based Heritage Foundation has provided support for the work of Padilla and Solórzano.8
Government delegations from Nicaragua (headed by Belli and Solórzano) have been some of the most prominent opponents of feminism at the United Nations, especially in the events surrounding the Cairo population conference and the Beijing women’s conference.9 Nicaraguan governmental delegations have been at the forefront of global anti-feminist organizing in alliance with governmental delegations from Argentina and several Muslim countries, right-wing Christian NGOs based mainly in the United States, and the Vatican.10
This movement, which is an indirect legacy of the revolution—reacting against the autonomous feminist movement that traces its roots to the revolution—first became identifiable in the 1990s. It was a group of organizations with strong ties to the state, especially to the ministries that deal most directly with personal politics: health, education, and the family. In the years following the Sandinista revolution, one of the anti-feminists’ major goals was to abolish article 165 of the penal code, the article that gave doctors the right to perform therapeutic abortion.
In November 2006, Rafael Cabrera, a gynecologist and president of Anprovida, told me that abolishing article 165 was a good thing because it was a 19th-century anachronism. In that time before the invention of antibiotics, before tuberculosis had been brought under control, before cardiac problems could be treated, Nicaragua was characterized by what he called “a hostile environment.” In the 19th century, pregnancy could threaten a woman’s life, and so therapeutic abortion was permitted to allow doctors to try to save patients faced with life-threatening pregnancies. But over the course of the 20th century, that medical environment became less hostile, until the point when, according to Cabrera, all pregnancies could be safely carried to term. I brought up a case of a Nicaraguan woman I knew personally who died at the age of 27 after her first pregnancy caused irreparable heart damage. He dismissed that example, telling me that since she died months after the baby was delivered by cesarean, her death could not be attributed to the pregnancy. Cabrera’s position—that therapeutic abortion was never medically necessary, so article 165 was just a loophole to permit abortion for social reasons—was the most common position among the anti-therapeutic-abortion activists I interviewed, although it was not the only position.
Cabrera and like-minded Nicaraguans had opposed therapeutic abortion for many years prior to 2006. That they succeeded in abolishing that 19th-century medical reform in 2006 cannot be understood outside the electoral context, which abortion opponents had not taken advantage of previously. Perhaps more critically, while there were both Catholic and evangelical abortion opponents, they had rarely worked together. But that started changing in the late 1990s.
Elizabeth de Rojas, a minister with Alianza Evangélica (Evangelical Alliance), explained that her work first came to the attention of traditional Catholic leaders in December 1998, when she helped organize what she called a “crusade” and “campaign” called Festinavidad. More than 300,000 gifts were distributed to Nicaraguan children at this event, gifts that had been provided by supporters of the U.S.-based evangelical minister Franklin Graham. Festinavidad culminated in a massive two-day cultural event in the Dennis Martínez National Stadium. The event attracted press coverage and the attention of Padilla, then minister of the family, Rojas said. Believing that the evangelicals behind this event shared values with traditional Catholic opponents of feminism, Padilla invited Rojas to a meeting at his government office. It was there that she met Solórzano of Animu; Evangelina de Guirola, also of Animu and the founder of Sí a la Vida (Yes to Life); and Cabrera of Anprovida.11
This alliance between Catholic and evangelical abortion opponents culminated in a mass march against therapeutic abortion in early October 2006, and the vote in the National Assembly, three weeks later, to abolish the life-of-the-mother exception to the civil code. During the march, a team from the feminist organization Puntos de Encuentro interviewed some of the approximately 200,000 participants. Many agreed with a young woman who explained that, in case of threat to a pregnant women’s life, “That would have to be left to God: the mother or the child. If it is put in God’s hands, He will decide if the two of them will live or not.” But many anti-therapeutic-abortion marchers seemed uncomfortable with the reality of banning the procedure and its logical consequence: letting some pregnant women die.
One teenage girl proposed the pro-choice position (though she did not call it that). “If it is a situation like that,” she said, “it would depend on the person. In my case I would prefer to have my child with the risk. Like a personal decision.” And a 54-year-old women explained that she was at the march “as the Catholic that I am, to support the ideas of our priests.” But if the pregnant woman would die along with her unborn baby? “Yes,” she said, “[the abortion] would be just.”
For many anti-feminist activists or their supporters, abolishing therapeutic abortion is not the final goal. Instead, it could be seen as part of a broader project of restoring or imposing a particular model of gender relations. Asked about the poor care pregnant women generally receive in the public health care system (which makes the abolition of therapeutic abortion more dangerous than it would be in a country with good pre-natal care), Noel Pereira Majano, congressman from the Liberal Party and president of the National Assembly’s Justice Commission, responded:
“One has to keep one’s cool in making statements about the effects of abortion. We have to study the causes; there has to be a coordination of governments and state agencies to avoid prostitution and free love. There must be an imploring against the situation of the liberated woman, who thinks she can control all the parts of her body.”12
Perhaps it is not surprising that a congressman from the right-wing Liberal Party should take this sort of position, although the Liberal Party itself has changed significantly from the days of the Somoza dictatorship, when it was considerably more secular and liberal regarding women than its main rival, the Conservative Party. What is surprising is that this agenda has been furthered with the active support of the FSLN. This alliance between anti-feminism and the nationalist party of the revolution complicates our view of politics. Though we tend to speak of movements as left- or right-wing, liberal or conservative, they may in fact be all of these things at once—simultaneously resisting imperialism, rejecting dictatorship, and promoting gender inequality.
Some have even suggested that it may be time to talk of a “sandinismo of the right.”13 But that may go too far. Certainly seen from the grassroots, sandinismo still is a left-wing project. Seen from the perspective of Ortega and Murillo, sandinismo may be a left-wing project drained of principle or, to put it more kindly, a flexible left-wing project. This is something that arguably has happened to the left across the region.14 But whether flexible or cynical, the return to the left in Nicaragua does not look very left-wing, at least not from a feminist perspective.
Karen Kampwirth is Professor of political science at Knox College. Her latest book is Feminism and the Legacy of Revolution: Nicaragua, El
Salvador, Chiapas (Ohio University Press, 2004).
1. José Adán Silva, “Un año de muertes y agresiones: Más de 80 muertes, justicia retardada y ataques contra movimiento feminista, ONU declara preocupación por proyecciones de aumento en mortalidad materna,” El Nuevo Diario, October 26, 2007.
2. “Daniel Ortega Presidente: del poder ‘desde abajo’ al gobierno,” Envio 25, no. 296-297 (November–December, 2006): 7.
3. Stan Lehman, “Brazil Offers Morning-After Pill to Poor,” The Washington Post, June 26, 2007; James C. McKinley Jr., “Mexico City Legalizes Abortion Early in Term,” The New York Times, April 25, 2007.
4. “Extracto de la entrevista ofrecida por Rosario Murillo, jefa de campaña del Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, a la emisora Nueva Radio Ya,” posted at www.izquierda.info/modules.php?name=News&file=print&sid=1498.
5. Luis Felipe Palacios, “Cardenal acusa a Belli de pedir que lo retiren: Belli dice que Obando está mal informado, que sólo visitó a sus Amigos en El Vaticano,” La Prensa, December 5, 2002, www.laprensa.com.ni; Opus Dei, “Después de la canonización: El primer sello de San Josemaría,” 2002, www.opusdei.org/art.php?w=35&p=5092.
6. Tom Neven, “Your Tax Dollars at Work in Latin America,” www.family.org/fofmag/pp/a0016326.html, 1–3.
7. Max Padilla, “La autonomía de la familia,” speech given to the World Congress of Families II, November 15, 1999, Geneva, Switzerland, www.thefamily.com/world-congress/mpadilla.html, 1–5.
8. Edgar González Ruiz, “Imperialismo ‘profamilia,’ la Fundación Heritage,” Red Voltaire, March 29, 2004, www.redvoltaire.net/article715.html.
9. Humberto Belli, “The Anti-Family Cairo Proposals,” Social Justice Review (July–August 1994): 113–6; Anick Druelle, “Right-Wing Anti-Feminist Groups at the United Nations,” 2000, http://netfemmes.cdeacf.ca/documents/Anti-Feminist%20Groups-USLetter.pdf; Ana María Pizarro, “We Urgently Need a Secular State for the Sake of Women’s Health,” Envio 22, no. 266 (2003): 29–38.
10. Druelle, “Right-Wing Anti-Feminist Groups at the United Nations”; Elina Vuola, “God and the Government: Women, Religion, and Reproduction in Nicaragua,” paper presented at the 2001 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, Washington, D.C., September 6–8, 2001, http://lasa.international.pitt.edu/Lasa2001/VuolaElina.pdf.
11. On these organizations, see Karen Kampwirth, “Resisting the Feminist Threat: Antifeminist Politics in Post-Sandinista Nicaragua,” NWSA Journal 18, no. 2 (summer 2006): 73–100.
12. Quoted in Lourdes Arróliga, “FSLN, ALN, PLC alineados con Iglesia,” Confidencial 10, no. 507 (October 15–21, 2006).
13. Edelberto Torres-Rivas, “Nicaragua: el retorno del sandinismo transfigurado,” Nueva Sociedad no. 207 (January–February 2007): 4–10.
14. Francisco Panizza, “Unarmed Utopia Revisited: The Resurgence of Left-of-Centre Politics in Latin America,” Political Studies 53, no. 4 (December 2005): 716–34.