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The fight against Dominican Republic's total abortion ban intensifies after polarizing decision

Criminalizing abortions is “causing an increase in maternal mortality and morbidity, which places us as one of the countries with the worst health indicators," one medical professional said.
Abortion rights activists sit outside tents set up in front of the National Palace during a protest to pressure parliament over a proposed reform to the penal code that could end the total ban on abortion in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on March 18,
Abortion-rights activists sit outside tents set up in front of the National Palace during a protest to pressure parliament over a proposed reform to the penal code that could end the total ban on abortion in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on March 18.Ricardo Rojas / Reuters file

A promise made on the campaign trail and not kept has now sparked a month of daily protests in the Dominican Republic, one of two dozen nations in the world with a ban on abortions under all circumstances — even when a woman's life is at risk.

Hundreds of women and reproductive-rights advocates began gathering every day outside the executive mansion of President Luis Abinader in mid-March, after Dominican lawmakers failed to decriminalize abortion when a woman's life is in danger, the pregnancy is not viable or in cases of rape or incest.

The protests spread internationally to New York City, where advocates organized solidarity protests, including one Friday that brought more than a dozen people bearing green-and-white signs championing "the right to life of pregnant people" and "their right to dignity."

Abinader, who took office last year, pledged his support of decriminalizing abortion under those circumstances when he was campaigning — effectively escalating tensions around the issue.

The president had doubled down on his support to conditionally decriminalize abortion during an interview with Spanish newspaper El País in December. The resulting backlash from various Dominican anti-abortion groups, including representatives of the Catholic Church, led him to soften his stance, saying he was “not going to impose his personal opinion” on other lawmakers.

The Dominican Republic is among El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica and Nicaragua as the Latin American and Caribbean nations that prohibit abortions under all circumstances, Amnesty International said in a report published April 7.

“What bothers me is seeing how everybody wants to legislate our bodies, women’s bodies. It’s like the first thing in their agenda is to control women. That’s not right. We need to change that — who tells a man when to get a vasectomy? Nobody,” Zenaida Méndez, who has been mobilizing Dominicans in New York City around the issue, said.

A total ban on abortions is consistently putting the lives of Dominican women at risk, said Méndez, who is also a founder of the nonpartisan organization National Dominican Women’s Caucus.

Few choices, dire consequences

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights admitted for review the case of Rosaura Almonte, 16, also known as Esperancita, who died of leukemia in 2012 after doctors denied her the chemotherapy she needed to save her life because she was pregnant.

Rosa Hernández, Esperancita’s mother and an avid abortion-rights advocate, is one of the many women who have been gathering in a camp just outside Abinader’s executive mansion, saying they will not leave until their demands are met and officials stop violating their constitutional rights to life and health.

The "laws in my country put the value of her pregnancy above the value of her life,” Hernández wrote in an op-ed for Ms. magazine published April 7.

Leaders of the movement #LasCausalesVan, which refers to the three circumstances in which they believe abortion should be decriminalized in the Dominican Republic, have been garnering support from multiple groups. One of these groups is Articulación Nacional Campesina (National Peasant Articulation), a network of 100,000 small agricultural businesses.

“To decriminalize abortion is to end injustices,” Yova Sánchez of Articulación Nacional Campesina said in a press conference Tuesday morning.

Women and girls facing unplanned or unwanted pregnancies are often forced to choose between clandestine abortions or continuing their pregnancies. While some can afford to travel to another country where abortion is legal, others — especially women from poor and rural communities — risk their health and lives to have clandestine abortions.

"Some suffer serious health complications, and even death, from unsafe abortion," international nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch wrote in a 2018 report. "An estimated 25,000 women and girls are treated for complications from miscarriage or abortion in the public health system in the Dominican Republic each year."

Unsafe abortions are the fourth-leading cause of maternal death in the country, and about 22 percent of such abortion interventions are carried out on adolescents, according to the Center for Gender Studies at INTEC, a private university in Santo Domingo.

Tents of abortion rights activists are set up in front of the National Palace during a protest to pressure parliament to end the total ban on abortion in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on March 18, 2021.Ricardo Rojas / Reuters file

Developed countries have an average maternal mortality rate of 21 per 100,000 live births. The Dominican Republic's average rate is 96 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to INTEC's Center for Gender Studies. Complications from abortion or miscarriage account for at least 8 percent of maternal deaths, according to Human Rights Watch.

A woman forced to remain pregnant under life-threatening circumstances has a 90 percent chance of dying, Dr. Waldo Ariel Suero, president of the Association of Dominican Physicians, said during a press conference Friday alongside the country’s National Nurses Association.

Both groups argued against criminalizing abortions because it is “causing an increase in maternal mortality and morbidity, which places us as one of the countries with the worst health indicators in the region and the world," Suero said.

“It’s practically impossible for a woman to survive a life-threatening pregnancy. When you don’t do anything, not only will the baby die, but the mother will also die as well. It is totally illogical to take away a woman’s right to life due to a pregnancy,” Suero said.

Medical professionals at the press conference also said they are asking for the ability to terminate a pregnancy under the stated extreme circumstances “without the fear of being legally convicted."

The Dominican Republic’s 19th-century penal code currently imposes prison sentences of up to two years on women and girls who induce abortions and up to 20 years for medical professionals who provide them, according to Human Rights Watch.

Amid international support, a growing movement

The United Nations Development Program on Monday urged the Dominican Republic to decriminalize abortion when a woman's life is in danger, the pregnancy is not viable or in cases of rape or incest.

A group of presidential advisers had already issued the same recommendations back on March 16, when lawmakers were discussing updating the nation's penal code. But Dominican legislators at the justice commission rejected such recommendations, instead proposing that the penal code allow abortion only when the mother’s life is threatened.

On Sunday, #LasCausalesVan camp organizers commemorated their monthlong fight with a rally and musical performances outside the executive mansion. Hundreds attended.

Activist Fátima Lorenzo told international news agency Agencia EFE that the group started their movement with just a few camping tents. A month later, it's become a social movement, earning the support of individuals who visit their camp or make donations.

“We couldn’t be more grateful for the support,” Lorenzo said. The group is planning more rallies and protests ahead of public hearings on the issue set to start April 26.

The activists posted a video in which they asked a woman why she had stopped by their tent.

“I’m here because I believe in what you're demanding," said Mireya Cruz, who was wearing a #LasCausales face mask. "We’re fighting for the life and health of our women.”

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