BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A presidential decision to ease the Dominican Republic’s ban on abortion is a landmark victory for women’s rights, but ensuring women can access legal and potentially life-saving abortions remains a challenge, a rights group has said.
President Danilo Medina recommended that lawmakers amend the criminal code to allow abortion in cases of rape, incest, a deformed fetus or when a woman’s life is in danger.
Lower chamber lawmakers accepted part of Medina’s recommendation last month, allowing abortion in cases when a women’s life was in danger.
“It’s definitely a victory and historic step that President Medina has spoken in a statement in favor of women’s rights and said the old criminal code violates a woman’s right to life, health and autonomy,” said Monica Arango, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Centre for Reproductive Rights.
The Dominican Republic’s outright ban on abortion has resulted in more than 90,000 unsafe abortions being performed in the country each year, according to the U.S.-based rights group.
Lawmakers are set to discuss a draft bill next month that would lay out the legal framework for women seeking to terminate pregnancies as a result of rape, incest or a deformed fetus.
If passed, the law is expected to take a year to come into effect, during which appeals against it could be lodged with the country’s highest court, Arango told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in Bogota.
“There will be a backlash,” Arango said. “There could still be conservative lawmakers wanting to challenge the proposed changes in front of the constitutional court.”
Bishops from the powerful Roman Catholic Church and evangelical groups have publicly criticized moves to overturn the abortion ban, saying that laws must protect the rights of an unborn child at all costs.
Pro-choice campaigners have urged the government to ensure that any new law allowing abortion under certain circumstances is put into practice.
“There now need to be protocols in hospitals and an active participation from the government to ensure women know about changes to the law and can access the essential reproductive healthcare they need and deserve,” Arango said.
There are still five countries in Latin America and the Caribbean – Chile, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua – that ban abortion in all circumstances.
Rights groups say such bans are a leading cause of maternal mortality because they force women to undergo dangerous backstreet abortions.
“The consequence of total abortion bans are always lived by poor rural women who have fewer opportunities and education,” Arango said.
Campaigners hope Chilean President Michelle Bachelet will follow the Dominican Republic’s example and ease its own ban.
“Bachelet is supporting changes to the country’s total ban on abortion. I do think changes will be made to the law,” said Arango, adding that Chilean lawmakers were expected to discuss a bill to decriminalize abortion in early March.
In another sign that Latin American governments are edging towards easing stringent abortion laws, El Salvador’s congress earlier this month pardoned a women accused of abortion and later sentenced to 30 years in prison for murder.
The pardon may signal similar relief for at least 16 other women in El Salvador who have been convicted and jailed for abortion, which has been illegal there since 1997.