• Sunday, November 29, 2015
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Church Pushes Draconian Abortion Law

    By Elizabeth Eames Roebling
    SANTO DOMINGO, Apr 23 (IPS) A truck full of female police officers,
    dressed in black riot protection gear, pulled up in front of the General
    Assembly building here to confront and control the crowd of women who had
    gathered on Tuesday to protest a "right to life" amendment to
    the Dominican constitution.

    Having failed to reverse the country’s strict abortion laws two
    years ago, various women’s groups assembled to protest a new
    constitutional amendment, Article 30, which reads: "The right to life
    is inviolable from conception until death" – for the fetus,
    that is, not for the pregnant woman.

    The amendment was introduced along with 43 others by President Leonel
    Fernandez, who asked for his entire party’s support.

    The debate has pitted civil society and medical groups against the heavy
    influence of the Catholic Church.

    Both the College of Physicians and the Dominican Gynecology and Obstetrics
    Society have public positions in favour of therapeutic abortion to save
    the life of the mother or in the case of rape or incest.

    On Wednesday, the Obstetrics Society warned that the number of maternal
    deaths – currently about 160 per 100,000 live births – will increase
    considerably with the approval of the amendment.

    "Those deaths are the product of unsafe abortions," said the
    society's president, Aldrian Almonte. "I would like the
    honourable legislators to tell me what are we going to do before the
    presence of a woman with severe preeclampsia or eclampsia, convulsing in
    any emergency room around the country, what must we do? See her die to
    protect ourselves from the repercussions that Article 30 stipulates?"

    The Cardinal of Santo Domingo, Nicholas de Jesus Lopez Rodriguez, used his
    Good Friday sermon to restate the Church’s opposition to abortion
    under any circumstances. A local parish priest at a press conference later
    accused feminist groups, physicians and legislators of having been
    corrupted by money from foreign NGOs.

    On the day of the vote, hundreds of women stood behind the barrier in
    front of the Senate in the afternoon sun, carrying signs such as "No
    Rosaries on our Ovaries" and chanting slogans against Article 30. By
    the fence, a group of six counter protestors held up signs reading
    "Abortion is Terrorism." Earlier that morning, a Catholic Mass
    had been said in front of the Senate.

    Lillian Fundera, a gynecologist, explained the implications of the
    constitutional amendment.

    "If Article 30 passes as it has been proposed by the executive
    branch, it will increase maternal mortality. Many more women will die.
    Why? Because women will still seek abortions as they have always
    done," she told IPS.

    "Here in the republic, we have 100,000 abortions a year. This was
    certified by the Guttmacher Institute in 1999 and again in 2000. We have
    no figures after that because it is not talked about," she explained.

    She said the cost of the procedure would increase because the process will
    become more clandestine. "Also this amendment will also prohibit the
    use of some forms of contraception, such as the IUD, which prevents the
    implantation of a fertile egg. Fifteen to 20 percent of the women in this
    country use this form of contraception. This is a form of contraception
    used with stable couples. But remember, in this country most women do not
    have stable partners, over 39 percent of the households are single mothers
    with children."

    Fundera said the amendment would make the "morning after"
    contraception-blocker pill illegal as well, and would bar therapeutic
    abortions in the case of ectopic pregnancies.

    "There is nothing else to be done in an ectopic pregnancy. If it is
    not ended, the mother will die. This amendment makes that life as valuable
    as the life of the mother," she said.

    The current abortion law in the Dominican Republic is extremely strict,
    carrying criminal penalties between six months and two years for anyone
    causing an abortion by any means. These penalties can be applied to the
    doctor, any attending medical personnel, and the female patient.

    While both politicians and Church leaders repeat publicly that abortion is
    illegal, in practice, the law is not enforced. The Maternity Hospital
    Altagracia in the capital, the nation’s largest, reported 6,300
    abortions performed last year, over 80 percent of them on teenagers.

    Many of these were the result of complications after home use of the drug
    Misoprostol, one of the two drugs used in RU486, which is approved for use
    in medical abortions in the United States. In the Dominican Republic,
    Misoprostol, like most non-narcotic medicines, is available at pharmacies
    without a physician’s prescription.

    Asked if she knew of any cases of criminal prosecution under the existing
    law, Dr Fundera said, "I have information on two cases, but these
    were both abortions by choice, not therapeutic abortions. But in both
    cases, the woman and the doctor were released within a day with no further
    legal action."

    Maria Lora, of the Research Centre for Feminist Action, explained the
    legal implications. "In this country, we have a history of
    constitutional reform. No matter what government comes in, they always
    reform the Constitution. Now in this round of reforms, there is one that
    recognizes the rights of equality of the sexes, and on that, we are
    completely in accord," she said.

    "Article 30, however, will cause many difficulties. From the medical
    point of view, it will mean that doctors will be completely prohibited
    from any type of abortions, because it will be in the Constitution. They
    will have to stand by and let the women die," Lora told IPS.

    Doris Dominguez put her concerns more personally. "If a woman is
    unwilling to give birth, she should be able to have an abortion," she
    told IPS. "If a girl is raped by her father, or a criminal, she
    should not have that child because it will be a child full of pain because
    the mother does not want it. What will become of this child?

    Late in the evening Tuesday, the amendment came to a vote, with 171 votes
    in favour and 32 opposed. There will be a second reading of all the
    amendments. Feminist groups vowed to continue the fight and to bring the
    case to international human rights organisations.

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