Nicaragua’s blanket ban on abortion, which criminalizes life-saving medical treatment, has had a devastating impact on women’s health and lives, Human Rights Watch said today in the first-ever report on the human rights consequences of the ban, which was enacted in November 2006.
The new report, “Over Their Dead Bodies,” documents how this ban on abortion has made women afraid to seek even legal health services. Fearing prosecution under the new law, doctors are unwilling to provide necessary care. The report is based on interviews with officials, doctors from the public and private health systems, women in need of health services, and family members of women who died as a result of the ban.
“Doctors in Nicaragua are now afraid to provide even legal health services to pregnant women,” said Angela Heimburger, Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Women’s Rights Division. “Some testified that personnel at public hospitals refused women and girls adequate care after devastating miscarriages, with direct reference to the ban.”
In December, one month after Congress enacted the ban during a hotly contested presidential election, the Ministry of Health responded by issuing detailed mandatory protocols on emergency obstetric care, including guidelines for medical treatment after illegal abortions. Ministry officials admit that they have received complaints of delay or denial of health services since the ban was implemented.
However, the report reveals that the President Daniel Ortega’s government so far has not studied the health effects of the ban on abortion. The government also does not appear to have investigated or sanctioned health professionals who do not implement the mandatory protocols.
“President Ortega should immediately help mitigate the disastrous effects of this ban by prioritizing pregnant women’s access to emergency medical care,” said Heimburger. “Nicaragua’s president needs to reassure women they will not be punished for trying to stay alive. At the same time, he should aggressively promote public awareness and access to services.”
Before this ban, Nicaragua’s penal code allowed abortions when a woman’s life was at risk. This new law intentionally denies women access to health services essential to saving their lives, and is thus inconsistent with Nicaragua’s obligations under international human rights law to ensure women’s right to life.