updated 10/26/2006 6:09:32 PM ET 2006-10-26T22:09:32

Nicaragua’s Congress voted Thursday to ban all abortions, including those that could save a mother’s life.

If signed into law by President Enrique Bolanos, the measure would eliminate a century-old exception to Nicaragua’s abortion ban that permits the procedure if three doctors certify that the woman’s health is at risk.

Fifty-two lawmakers voted for the measure. Nine lawmakers abstained and 29 others did not attend the legislative session.

Bolanos has proposed increasing prison sentences for illegal abortions — currently around six years — to 10 to 30 years for women who have the procedure as well as those who assist them.

But it was unclear whether he would sign the bill approved Thursday after lawmakers decided not to increase the penalties in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.

The bill has drawn protests from women’s rights groups, and the Women’s Autonomous Movement has said it was prepared to seek an injunction to block the measure if it passed.

Congress approved the bill despite a letter from European Union diplomats and U.N. representatives asking lawmakers to hold off on voting on the issue until after the Nov. 5 presidential elections.

U.N. official Rebeca Grynspan, who is in Nicaragua this week, told reporters, “It’s very difficult that this (be determined) during an electoral period.”

Nicaragua’s medical association also urged legislators to postpone the vote, saying the issue had become politicized.

Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, who was a supporter of abortion rights as a young revolutionary, has said he has become a devout Roman Catholic and now opposes abortion.

Ortega’s socialist government of the 1980s had a contentious relationship with the Catholic church, but Ortega recently has established warm ties with leading church figures in Nicaragua.

Congressman Wilfredo Navarro, of the ruling Liberal Constitutionalist Party, said the exception to Nicaragua’s ban had allowed for cases in which healthy women who did not want to have their babies had convinced doctors to say an abortion was needed for health reasons.

Restrictions throughout Americas
Aside from Cuba, which permits abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, Latin America has some of the world’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.

El Salvador and Chile also ban all types of abortions.

Most of the other countries in this heavily Roman Catholic region allow abortion when a woman’s life is in danger but deny it to pregnant victims of rape or incest, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a New York-based advocacy group that supports abortion rights.

In May, Colombia’s constitutional court legalized abortion in cases where fetuses were severely malformed, the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest or the mother’s life was in danger.

Some 85 percent of Nicaragua’s 5 million people are Catholics.

Around the world, more than a dozen countries have made it easier to get abortions in the past decade, and women from Mexico to Ireland have mounted court challenges to get access to the procedure.

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