The Nicaraguan legislature’s rescinding of the country’s therapeutic abortion law last December, with the support of the Sandinista bench, underlines a frequent observation made by leaders of the feminist movement: that the left has at best a complex, ambivalent relationship with women’s rights and empowerment (see Verónica Gago, “Dangerous Liaisons,” NACLA Report, March/April 2007). As the abortion controversy in Nicaragua suggests, this seeming paradox is nowhere more apparent than in the realm of sexual and reproductive health and rights.
The Sandinistas are not the only bad example. Uruguay’s President Tabaré Vázquez, for instance, threatened to veto a bill legalizing abortion, even though it was sponsored by legislators from his own center-left party. On the other hand, right-of-center governments do not necessarily oppose or obstruct reproductive rights agendas. In Colombia, the Constitutional Court voted to partially legalize abortion, allowing terminations in cases of rape or incest, or if the life of the mother or fetus is in danger. Even though President Álvaro Uribe disagreed, he did not interfere with the process and has complied with the decision.
Although Latin America is seen as a family-planning success story, with its low birth rate and high levels of contraceptive use, the region’s high rates of maternal mortality and adolescent pregnancy belie an image of demographic stability and widespread reproductive rights. If the “pink tide”—that is, Latin America’s 11 left-of-center governments—is to represent the best hope for fighting poverty in a region that remains the world’s most unequal, sexual and reproductive health and rights and women’s empowerment must be part of the equation. There are some hopeful signs.
Michelle Bachelet, a socialist and the first woman to become president of Chile, has championed sexual and reproductive health. Announcing a plan to distribute free emergency contraception at public hospitals to girls as young as 14, Bachelet presented the policy as more than simply a matter of public health. Because “not everyone is equal and not everyone has the same possibilities,” she said, it is her duty “to guarantee that all Chileans have real options in this area, as in others.”
In Argentina, public hospitals in the cities of Buenos Aires and Rosario also offer free emergency contraception, and a pending bill would expand the service nationwide. Health Minister Ginés González’s recent declaration that legalizing abortion would greatly reduce maternal mortality has opened a new space for discussing abortion at the government level. And bills have been presented that would expand abortion rights in cases of rape or fetal nonviability.
In Uruguay, Senator Margarita Percovich, a prominent feminist, announced her intention to reintroduce legislation that would legalize abortion, couching the measure “as a matter of human rights” in hopes of avoiding another defeat. She also said it would be difficult for President Vázquez to veto such a bill. In a further sign of progress, Uruguay’s Health Ministry recently authorized an abortion for an emotionally disturbed homeless woman who had made multiple suicide attempts. This authorization came as Uruguay’s legislators were beginning to consider Percovich’s proposed law.
Even in Nicaragua, things might not be as bad as they seem. Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, one of abortion’s most vocal opponents, has stated, surprisingly, 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.” He has also called for a medical conference to discuss the pros and cons of abortion.
Controversy over therapeutic abortion is also growing within the ruling Sandinista Party. Health Minister Maritza Cuan came out against the criminalization. Education Minister Miguel de Castilla argued that the state has no right to legislate the issue, since it should be a matter of free choice, “like the decision to believe in God or not.” Managua mayor Dionisio Marenco framed the issue as neither moral nor ideological, but as simply medical: If a woman is dying, she should be saved.
Nicaragua’s abortion ban already faces fierce opposition from the women’s movement, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has denounced the ban as contrary to international law and a threat to women’s human rights. Nicaraguan and international rights groups, medical associations, and community organizations have brought a constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court. And now, Sandinista support is splintering, while the church wants a second opinion.
Pierre LaRamée is the director of development and public affairs at the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere Regional Office, and a member of NACLA’s Board of Directors.