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An abortion rights activist holds a plastic medallion reading "For the #3Causales (#3LegalGrounds), Life, Health and Dignity" during a protest to urge parliament to approve a proposed reform to the penal code that could end the total ban on abortion in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on March 18, 2021.  © 2021 REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas.

(Washington, DC) – The Congress of the Dominican Republic should adopt a proposal to decriminalize abortion in three circumstances as a matter of urgency, Human Rights Watch said today. The country’s total abortion ban, in effect since 1884, threatens women’s health and lives and is incompatible with its international human rights obligations.

Abortion is illegal in the Dominican Republic even when a pregnancy is life-threatening, unviable, or the result of rape or incest. A proposal being debated by Congress would decriminalize abortion in these cases.

“The Dominican Republic’s legislators have an opportunity to reform the country’s archaic criminal code and decriminalize abortion in three circumstances,” said Ximena Casas, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Women and girls in the Dominican Republic have had a long wait for the authorities to defend their lives and their sexual and reproductive rights.”

The country’s criminal code imposes prison sentences of up to 2 years on women and girls who have abortions and up to 20 years for medical professionals who provide them.

Over the past 15 years, Human Rights Watch has published several reports on the impact of the criminalization of abortion, 8 of them on countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. In all cases, Human Rights Watch concluded that legal frameworks that criminalize abortion create an environment in which women and girls resort to unsafe procedures that endanger their health and lives.

Human Rights Watch published a report and video in 2018 documenting the harmful consequences of the Dominican Republic’s abortion ban based on interviews with dozens of women and girls who faced unwanted pregnancies and turned to unsafe abortion methods, often at great risk to their health and lives. The research showed that the country’s abortion ban contributed to preventable health complications and maternal death and disproportionately harmed women and girls from low-income and rural areas, who are less likely to be able to access safer abortion methods or travel to another country where abortion is legal.

President Luis Abinader has proposed holding a national referendum to allow the public to decide. Where access to safe and legal abortion services are unreasonably restricted, as in the Dominican Republic, the government has an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights related to sexual and reproductive health and autonomy, and these rights should not be subject to a referendum, Human Rights Watch said.

The Chamber of Deputies was scheduled to begin debate on the bill on April 21, 2021, but there was no quorum. The debate began on April 22 and may continue for several days. If the bill is adopted in the Chamber of Deputies, it will move to the Senate for debate and a vote. If passed it would ultimately be sent to President Abinader for his signature.

A decision to partially decriminalize abortion in Chile in 2017 is an example of global progress toward eliminating legal barriers to accessing abortion. Between 2000 and 2017, 27 countries expanded legal access to abortion. The Dominican Republic should join the countries that have brought their laws on accessing abortion closer in line with their human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

“Forcing women and girls to continue a pregnancy or turn to unsafe abortion when their life is in danger, or when a pregnancy is unviable or caused by rape or incest, is dangerous and cruel and violates human rights,” Casas said. “The Dominican Republic should end the total abortion ban without delay and affirm women’s and girls’ rights and dignity by allowing them to make decisions about their health care.”  

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