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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 November 2006, 04:06 GMT
Nicaragua's abortion dilemma
By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Managua

Anti-abortion demonstrators carry placards reading abortion is murder
Nicaragua's abortion law provoked emotional debate
In the yellow-walled church of San Francisco in central Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, there is moral clarity.

Abortion is wrong. No ifs, no buts, no clouded judgement.

It is just one of the Catholic churches here that serves 70% of a population that looks to Rome for its religious guidance and spiritual nourishment.

"Abortion is the murder of an unborn child," says Father Ronaldo Alvarez, the priest here, who speaks for the church on this matter.

"Just because you can't see the baby, doesn't mean it has no rights."

We accept there can be natural abortions but that is the biological will of the body, not the chosen will of the human mind"
Father Ronaldo Alvarez
We sit in Father Alvarez's presbytery and talk about Nicaragua's new law that bans practically every abortion. President Enrique Bolanos has just put his signature to this controversial new legislation.

I run through the arguments and Father Alvarez listens. But there is no hesitation in his replies.

"What about if a woman is raped"? I start.

"It is not the fault of the baby," says Father Alvarez. "It is the rapist, not the child, who should be punished."

"What about if a woman's life is in danger?" I continue.

"We don't want to harm women, but there must be no intervention through choice to kill the baby," comes the reply.

Choice is the key word in this whole loaded debate.

For Catholics and others like Father Alvarez, if there is choice on the part of the mother and/or the doctor, to terminate a pregnancy, then that is wrong.

Pro-choice demonstrator in Managua this week
Some women's groups strongly opposed the change in the law
"We accept there can be natural abortions," says Father Alvarez, "but that is the biological will of the body, not the chosen will of the human mind".

Under Nicaragua's new law, what have previously been called "therapeutic" abortions will be banned.

The country is said to have 30,000 "therapeutic" abortions every year, but the Church and practically every parliamentarian, decided the term "therapeutic" was being over-used to cover a wide range of terminations that were not actually therapeutic, or medically justified.

And it is not hard to find people outside the Church or parliament who also firmly believe a toughening up of the law is required.

Pregnancy complications

Maria Mora is an ordinary Nicaraguan woman. She has four children.

"Do you agree with abortion," I ask.

"No," says Maria.

"Why?" I say.

"How could I abort my child?" Maria replies.

"But what if your life was in danger?" I continue.

The new law wont stop abortions. Women will always seek abortions. With us they can have them safely. Without us, they will die.
Dr Leonel Argello
"I would rather die myself than live without my child," she says, with a conviction that does not entertain ambiguity.

I travel to Managua's central hospital and am lead to its maternity unit. The doctors here say the new law is wrong. They want me to hear the opposing arguments. For that, they insist, I must meet a woman who has just had an abortion.

"It is the kind of case that shows just how difficult all this is," says Dr Leonel Argello.

I am lead into a side room, complete with a table, chair and unmade bed. Shortly after, Maria Angel Sanchez comes in. A woman in her 20s she is clearly in pain. She has just had an abortion. The raw effect of the experience has not subsided.

"Until 24 hours ago I had never even thought about abortion," says Maria.

She explains that there were complications for her and her baby. She says that the pregnancy was no longer possible. The baby could not live, so the doctors offered Maria a termination in order for her to avoid any internal bleeding or infection.

All legal under the old law. Now illegal under the new one, even though, say the doctors, Maria could have died without their intervention.

Criminalising medics

"I have now changed my mind about abortion," says Maria. "The new law is unfair as it puts my life at risk. I have another child at home. What would she have done if I died because I couldn't have an abortion?"

By now, Maria's eyes have a moist redness and tears beckon.

"No, let me continue," she insists. "We women give life, so we have the right to make a choice about life."

That word "choice" again. Under the new law doctors could face up to six years in jail if they carry out an abortion.

" We will be criminalised for trying to save lives," says Dr Argello. "And the new law wont stop abortions. Women will always seek abortions. With us they can have them safely. Without us, they will die. This law will kill women."

The clarity this time is not founded in moral certainty, but in clinical judgement.

It is all part of the ancient debate about abortion - as polarising in Nicaragua as anywhere else. On the one side the Church, with its unshakeable belief that life is an indivisible entity bestowed only by God and who alone monopolises control over it.

And on the other side, a matching sincerity in the view that a woman's right to control her own body and health cannot be compromised by a set of religious doctrines.

Spiritual faith versus human pragmatism, contrasts that don't only occupy the law makers, presidents and the people of Nicaragua.

Nicaragua brings in abortion ban
18 Nov 06 |  Americas
Nicaragua votes to ban abortions
26 Oct 06 |  Americas
Abortion ban closer in Nicaragua
21 Oct 06 |  Americas
Colombia court eases abortion ban
11 May 06 |  Americas
Abortion ruling splits Nicaragua
04 Mar 03 |  Americas
Country profile: Nicaragua
04 Nov 02 |  Country profiles

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