Saturday, January 27, 2007

Reproductive rights in Nicaragua: A conversation with Friends of the Casa Materna

(Picture stolen from the BBC)

In 2003, Rosa, a 9-year old girl became pregnant. Pregnancies by the very young are risky for the mother and the fetus. In addition, this girl was raped.

Nicaragua is a very conservative, very Catholic country. At the time, therapeutic abortions were allowed. The definition was vague, but abortions to save the mother's life and in the case of a severely deformed fetus were OK. This case, though, ingited serious debate. Some government ministers wanted to allow her to have an abortion, and some opposed it. In the end, she did have an abortion. However, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated her parents and the doctors who performed the abortion. The picture on the upper left is a demonstration in support of Rosa and her family.

On October 26, 2006, Nicaragua's legislature voted to ban all abortions. Some said it was a vote-grabbing ploy ahead of the elections. Women who terminate their pregnancies and doctors who perform the abortions could face 6 to 30 years in prison. Daniel Ortega, the then and current president, backed the bill. Ortega is with the Sandinistas, who once had a tradition of feminism and liberalism. Some say he, and his challengers in the election, couldn't afford to alienate the church, because they would lose. And by the way, the American media doesn't like to talk about this, but the United States waged a proxy war against the Sandinistas as part of our campaign against socialism in Latin America. This is probably why they left their socialist roots.

Still, tens of thousands of women receive illegal abortions despite the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Illegal abortions can be very risky - they often have to be performed outside a hospital by poorly trained doctors. Indeed, Latin America in general has been moving to prohibit abortions or strengthen the restrictions against it.

A couple of Episcopal churches in town work with the Casa Materna. This post draws on a presentation they gave at my church. From their website:
"The Casa Materna was founded in October, 1991 through aid provided by Spain's Instituto de la Mujer (Women's Institute) and donations from individuals and small groups from the United States. The first baby was born on the night of October 31st and since that date over 10,000 mothers have been served in the Casa and hundreds of others helped through education and outreach in their home communities. Service is provided round the clock seven days a week and is coordinated with the services of the Ministry of Health. The Casa now serves close to 950 mothers per year and houses from 20-35 mothers at a time. Average length of stay is eleven days."

Some Christians show, by their actions, that they want to keep women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. The Roman Catholic Church prohibits abortion, and artificial birth control, including condoms. It allows the rhythm method. However, not all women have regular menstrual cycles in the first place. Malnourishment, which is a big problem in rural Latin America, can cause temporary amenorrhea. In perfect conditions, the rhythm method is iffy. In real life, in Latin America, you might as well not bother. And as a result, having ten children is not abnormal. Having that many pregnancies can be unsafe, too.

The birth control pill is a sin, according to the RCC. Another option for family planning is tubal ligation. As explained by our presenter, with birth control, you're sinning every day. With tubal ligation, it's one big sin, and then you're done for the rest of your life. Tubal ligation is major surgery, but at present, while the costs have gone up, it is still affordable, and foreign organizations contribute to subsidize the cost for poor women. A less painful solution would be vastectomy. However, I am told that machismo is still very prevalent in Latin America. To put it plainly, men don't want to have their nuts cut. Face it, I would hesitate to get a vastectomy. Unfortunately, now that they've banned abortion, banning tubal ligations might be next.

In other countries, men are the main problem. Most sex educators are women, and men often aren't inclined to listen to women teaching them to use condoms. Women do not have the power necessary to negotiate condom use. If they bring it up, they may be accused of cheating or having an STD, when in fact it is the men who sleep around. In Nicaragua at least, our presenters didn't feel that men were the main problem. They felt that the Roman Catholic Church was the main problem.

"Violación," the sign that the girl in the photo is holding, needs no translation. Restrictions on reproductive freedom are a violation of women's bodies, minds, and souls. Therefore, they are a violation of human rights. We need to ensure access to birth control and access to comprehensive sex education. We need to end sexual violence. We also need to end poverty. One of my lecturers told me that a male sex educator she worked with explained it thus. In his village in Africa, there were no playgrounds, no libraries, no toys, no schools. Sex was the only thing they had. And people want that skin-to-skin contact, and face it, condoms do decrease sensation. But if we want to limit the number of abortions, banning them is the worst thing we can possibly do.

Meanwhile, I do encourage people to donate to the work of the Casa Materna, at the bottom link. In the West, our dollars have a multiplier effect when they go to projects in developing countries. Every church should have a partner in the developing world, and this is one of my church's partners.

News articles:,,1932576,00.html

Read about and donate to the Casa Materna here:

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