MANAGUA – The religious fever with which the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) is defending Nicaragua’s controversial ban on lifesaving “therapeutic abortion” has further lifted the mask on a party that claims to comefrom the revolutionary left, but behaves more like the reactionary right, critics claim.
In response to a recent legal initiative presented by 20 opposition lawmakers to de-penalize therapeutic abortion, which has been outlawed in Nicaragua since the end of 2006, leaders of the FSLN have responded with an air of religious righteousness, angrily condemning opponents from their political pulpit.
“This legal project from the anti-popular and anti-democratic forces could not come at a worse time, just as we are about to celebrate Semana Santa (Holy Week) – a moment to ask forgiveness and reflect on the sacrifice of Jesus,” said Edwin Castro, head of the Sandinista Front’s legislative voting bloc.
Sounding more like a priest than a revolutionary, Castro last week condemned the legal initiative as a “project of death.” By contrast, he said, the Sandinista Front represents “life” and “hope.”
The Sandinista legislative leader also felt emboldened to speak on the behalf of all women.
“It is crazy to call abortion a right of women, because no woman who has had an abortion comes out of it happy,” Mr. Castro said, speaking not from personal experience.
Nicaragua’s National Assembly banned therapeutic abortion – a life-saving medical intervention to save a pregnant woman’s life – during the homestretch of the 2006 presidential election. The initiative was presented by then-President Enrique Bolaños and a group of Liberal party lawmakers. But the bill was backed enthusiastically by the Sandinista Front, to the chagrin of many progressive movements in Europe and Latin America (NT, Nov. 2, 2006).
The ban on therapeutic abortion was ratified by the new Penal Code in 2008, again with the support of Sandinista lawmakers.
While many pundits have criticized the Sandinista Front’s adamant “pro-life” stance as election-year pandering to the Catholic Church, the former revolutionary party’s continued defense of penalization has some people saying their motivation is more complex than just opportunism.
“This has gone beyond opportunism; this is now philosophical,” said Dora María Tellez, a former guerrilla hero and leader of the left-wing Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).
Tellez, who served as the Sandinistas’ minister of health during the revolutionary government of the 1980s, noted that it was the first FSLN government that implemented the norms for therapeutic abortion to protect women’s rights to health and life. So the reversal of the Sandinistas’ position under the second coming of President Daniel Ortega is “completely contrary” to the revolutionary principles of the past, Tellez said.
“Little by little, (the FSLN) has converted itself into a right-wing, fundamentalist party, similar to the administration of (former U.S. President George W.) Bush,” Tellez told The Nica Times.
Mónica Baltodano, another former Sandinista comandante, agrees. Baltodano, an independent left-leaning lawmaker under the yellow flag of the Movement to Rescue Sandinismo, said the FSLN’s position on the issue of therapeutic abortion is “absolutely reactionary” and reflective of “the general direction the FSLN has taken in ceasing to be a political party and converting into an electoral machine that serves the ambitions of Ortega and (First Lady Rosario) Murillo.”
Baltodano, a sponsor of the bill to overturn the penalization of therapeutic abortion, said the FSLN’s opposition to the initiative is not only “retrograde,” but also based on “lies.” She criticized the FSLN for telling people the bill purports to legalize all types of abortion, which is not the case.
The bill’s only objective, Baltodano insists, is to reverse the penalization of therapeutic abortion. It does not seek to legalize elective abortions, she said.
The FSLN’s twisting of the argument is shameful and contradictory to the ideals of the Sandinista revolution, which fought for women’s rights and a separation of church and state, she said.
“The ‘pro-life’ conduct of the FSLN is an embarrassment to all Sandinista revolutionaries,” Baltodano told The Nica Times. “All of us who fought thought that the reason for our struggle was a society that is more just and more humane. But this cannot be as long as we condemn women to death in the name of life, using religious arguments that marginalize science, rational thought and common sense.”
Andrés Perez, a Nicaraguan university professor in Canada who has written extensively on the ideological foundations of the Sandinista Front and the relationship between church and state in Nicaragua, agrees the FSLN’s “pro-life” stance is more than just political opportunism.
“It is a mistake to assume that the FSLN is simply manipulating the religious culture of the Nicaraguan masses. They are part of this culture,” Perez told The Nica Times in an email. “I have always said that the Marxism of the FSLN was like a thin skin covering a deep ocean of Christian provincialism. And now that skin has been perforated and the FSLN is expressing – in actions and words – the way in which they see the world.”
While Perez claims Ortega’s Sandinista Front is opportunistic and pragmatic to the extreme of “not being constrained by any kind of ethical code,” he said the governing party’s actions and words also “express something much more complex than just calculation and opportunism.”
The Case of ‘Amalia’
In a country where statistics have long been dubious and are now protected jealously by a secretive government, numbers can be – and are – used to argue both sides of the same argument here. Such is the case with the debate on therapeutic abortion, where the FSLN claims maternal deaths are down over the past three years, while the opposition claims the numbers are up.
But every once in a while an emblematic case comes along that cuts through the slippery statistics and puts a human face on the issues. Such was the case with a young woman named “Amalia,” who discovered she was pregnant on Jan. 7. Five weeks later, Amalia was hospitalized with an aggressive form of cancer in her lungs, brain and breasts.
The problem, however, was that doctors were afraid to treat Amalia’s cancer by exposing her to chemotherapy and potentially killing or damaging the fetus.
So for the next month, Amalia became the source of national and international debate and speculation as rights activists implored the government to intervene before the disease consumed her life.
After a visible lobby effort that lasted about a month, the Ministry of Health finally acted and Amalia was given the cancer treatment she needed.
But the amount of time it took doctors to intervene shows “the protocols don’t work,” argues Marta María Blandon, executive director of IPAS, an international reproductive-rights organization.
“It took them that long because of the law that doesn’t allow doctors to interrupt a woman’s pregnancy, even when her life is at risk,” Blandon said.
Blandon, who has been in contact with Amalia since January, said the doctors held off cancer treatment until the end of the first trimester of her pregnancy to reduce the risk of injury to the fetus. She said the Ministry of Health has convinced Amalia to keep the baby, a decision she said the women’s rights movement respects.
Blandon, a former Sandinista activist in the 1980s, acknowledges that the current Ortega administration – with the help of Cuban medical brigades – has taken some positive steps towards improving maternal care, especially in rural areas of the country.
As a result, many campesina women are getting better medical attention when complications arise during their pregnancies – an effort Blandon applauds.
However, the feminist leader said, that doesn’t change the need for therapeutic abortion as a measure of last resort to save a mother’s life.
“Poor women are dying in rural areas of the country,” Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) lawmaker José Pallais told The Nica Times. “If you have money, you go to Costa Rica for treatment, but if you don’t have money, you die.”
The ban on therapeutic abortion, he said, is “a serious violation of human rights and the constitution.”
Independent lawmaker Yamileth Bonilla, one of the sponsors of the initiative to overturn the ban on therapeutic abortion, says the climate in the National Assembly is changing.
“Before there were only 12 lawmakers who were against penalizing therapeutic abortion, but now there are 20 of us who have signed onto the initiative and four more who are supporting it in private,” Bonilla told The Nica Times.
“Most of us are the ones who voted in favor of depenalization before, but some lawmakers who supported penalization have since seen the statistics on maternal deaths and realize their error,” she said.
When lawmakers banned therapeutic abortion in 2006, Nicaragua became one of only five countries in the world to outlaw the life-saving procedure. Previous to that, therapeutic abortion – in one form or another – had been legal here for more than a century.
Bonilla admits they are still shy of the 47 votes needed to overturn the ban, but says she remains hopeful.
Leonel Teller, spokesman for the opposition Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), did not answer The Nica Times’ request to clarify his party’s official position on the matter. Others in the PLC say it’s up to the individual lawmaker to vote his or her conscience on the matter.
Bonilla, however, says the principal obstacle to getting the votes is not the rightwing PLC, but rather the FSLN and its curious alliance with the Catholic Church. Still, Bonilla thinks many of the Sandinista lawmakers would support lifting the ban if allowed to vote independently.
“I have no doubt that if we had a secret vote in the National Assembly, we would have the majority,” Bonilla said.