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Last Updated: Saturday, 13 October 2007, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Nicaragua's back street abortions
By Jane Dreaper
BBC News, Nicaragua

An estimated 20 million unsafe abortions are carried out every year around the world.

They are a major cause of avoidable deaths among pregnant women, not least in Nicaragua where abortion is illegal.

It is still the rainy season in the capital, Managua. Downpours are never far away, and the heat and humidity wrap around you like a blanket.

A five month old foetus
Abortion became a crime for women in Nicaragua in November 2006

Managua is not your typical city. Ravaged by earthquakes, fire, flooding and a revolution, there are hardly any high-rise buildings, and no obvious central district.

Street names are non-existent, and addresses tend to be a list of directions, culminating in vital information such as "the house near the tree in the middle of the street".

But Managua redeems itself with a beautiful green carpet of vegetation which stretches from the banks of its 40-mile-long lake up to the hills beyond.

Blanket ban

Nicaragua is one of Latin America's poorest countries and there is no doubt that life here is tough.

There is a high rate of pregnancy among teenage girls and the health workers I spoke to mentioned significant levels of sexual abuse.

I had travelled here to find out about the impact of the latest restrictions on abortion in this predominantly Catholic country.

A law passed a year ago makes Nicaragua one of just a handful of countries around the world with a blanket ban on abortion, even in cases of rape or when the pregnancy is endangering a woman's health.

A map of Nicaragua including the city of Managua

Pro-life campaigners see the law as a significant victory that illustrates what they can achieve elsewhere.

Abortion rights activists, meanwhile, talk of the fear of prosecution among those doctors who are approached by a pregnant woman who may be suffering complications.

I wanted to hear about the experiences of these women. The new legislation, it appears, is not necessarily deterring those who feel they need to end their pregnancies.

I met some of the women in a suburban garden, filled with date palms, hibiscus and orange trees, the air resonating with the exotic cries and whoops of birdsong.

The surroundings may have been idyllic but I was listening to a series of increasingly grim stories.

Secrets and lies

Twenty-year-old Carla discovered in the summer that she was pregnant again by the man who had already fathered her two-year-old.

"He drinks too much," she told me, adding that he had no sense of responsibility.

The abortion was carried out without anaesthetic and it hurt - it was like giving birth

So she borrowed money from a friend and went to a private clinic.

An illegal abortion can still be obtained in Nicaragua, if you can get your hands on $200 (100).

"The abortion was carried out without anaesthetic and it hurt. It was like giving birth," she said.

Jessica, a computer student, had a similarly painful experience. She said the doctor had seemed as scared as her.

Jessica lives with her father, and kept her abortion a secret from him.

She has talked it through with a counsellor, and tries to campaign for other women now, while pursuing her own education and career aspirations.

I am used to interviewees sometimes being reticent about speaking into my microphone. But these women - with their neat hair, sparkly tops and fashionable jeans - relived their experiences calmly and confidently.

Jane Dreaper interviewing Gema, a women's group worker
Gema works as a volunteer with women's rights organisations

Only afterwards I learned that they were worried that I would judge them for what had happened.

Then Gema, who works for a women's group, stepped forward to tell me about a girl who had approached her group for help several weeks earlier.

The woman was nervous, her hands shaking. She was pregnant after being assaulted by her uncle, a drug addict.

Ethical objections

She turned to the group in desperation, but they advised her they could not help her with an abortion because of the law.

Her reaction was to pummel her stomach with clenched fists.

Several days later, she was found dead from an overdose.

Dr Rafael Cabrera, Gynaecologist and Director of ANPROVIDA
They know it is the wrong thing to do
Dr Rafael Cabrera

Gema spoke of this woman's case with barely controlled anger, not least because her suicide would not be recorded as having any relation to the abortion issue.

Earlier I had interviewed Nicaragua's leading pro-life activist, Dr Rafael Cabrera, who is also an obstetrician and gynaecologist.

I had put it to him that women would continue seeking abortions, whatever the law said.

"But they know it is the wrong thing to do," he said.

His concern was for protecting the unborn.

Was it his Catholic faith that deterred him from dispensing contraception? I asked.

He said it was more an ethical and scientific viewpoint and quoted studies about long-term damage from taking the pill, telling me that contraception damages a woman's maternal instincts.

I tried to reflect on the bitter arguments surrounding abortion as I had a look around Managua's cathedral.

A strikingly modern building, natural light pours in through a series of domes.

As a communion service was taking place inside, someone outside set off a series of fireworks, sending loud crackles through the air and breaking up the peaceful atmosphere.

I could not help but feel that the tensions of these fierce divisions being played out between church, state, and a poverty-stricken people were going to haunt Nicaragua for a long time to come.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 13 October, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Nicaragua
11 May 07 |  Country profiles

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