MANAGUA — On a recent Wednesday morning in the capital, with the kind of asphyxiating city heat that Managua produces so effortlessly, a colorful swarm of thousands of handmade paper butterflies and people dressed like them flittered and fluttered through the streets like a heat mirage coming off the steamy pavement.
The Sept. 28 march — an international demonstration of solidarity with the women and girls of Nicaragua – was for a very real cause, though it’s one that political and religious authorities seem to be ignoring in hopes that it will disappear like a heat illusion.
The “send a butterfly to Nicaragua” campaign, organized by Amnesty International as a protest of the government’s total ban on life-saving abortions, drew massive support worldwide. Amnesty says it collected and sent more than 50,000 homemade butterflies to Nicaragua, including 17,000 from activists in the United Kingdom.
“Butterflies are the symbol of Amnesty’s solidarity campaign with the women and girls of Nicaragua, where rape and sexual violence are widespread,” reads the group’s website, describing the somber problem that motivated the colorful construction paper crusade.
Nicaragua is one of six countries in the world to ban therapeutic abortion, a medical intervention performed to terminate life-threatening pregnancies, or pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. The legislative National Assembly banned therapeutic abortion shortly before the 2006 presidential election, in a bipartisan act of electoral pandering to the Catholic Church.
The total ban repealed a legal right bestowed to women here for more than a century, effectively turning back the clock on Nicaragua’s penal code to pre-19th century standards.
In 2007, the government upheld the draconian measure in its new Penal Code, which calls for stiff jail sentences for any woman who undergoes a medical intervention to terminate a risky pregnancy, and for the doctor that helps them.
Nicaragua’s decision has drawn sharp criticism internationally; rights groups such as Amnesty argue that the total abortion ban is in flagrant violation of women’s basic rights to life and health, while other groups have suggested it may also violate a doctors’ Hippocratic Oath.
The Sandinista Front’s support for the ban has also cost the former revolutionary party political capital among international progressive movements, which can only scratch their heads at the Sandinistas’ enthusiastic conversion to Christian fundamentalism over the past six years.
Campaigning against abortion (again)
All five presidential candidates running in the Nov. 6 general elections have come out firmly against therapeutic abortion. Some of the candidates justify their position by citing polls that suggest most Nicaraguans oppose abortion, while others cite religious illumination with verse and chapter.
Curiously, the only disagreement between candidates on the issue of therapeutic abortion comes from the presidential ticket of the Liberal Independent Party (PLI). Right-wing presidential candidate Fabio Gadea is opposed to therapeutic abortion, but his running mate, Edmundo Jarquín, of the left-leaning Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), is in favor of lifting the ban.
Their solution to that conflict of opinion, however, has been to ignore the issue entirely – a strategy that critics claim relegates the importance of women’s rights and further devalues a campaign that’s already bereft of ideas, proposals or debate.
Is public opinion shifting?
Interestingly enough, a new survey published last month by Nicaraguan polling firm M&R Consultants suggests that many Nicaraguans may not be as fundamentalist as the candidates when it comes to the issue of therapeutic abortion.
The M&R poll, sponsored by the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM), found that 78.3 percent of the population thinks that the current legislation banning therapeutic abortion should be revised or reversed, especially in instances when a mother’s life is at risk.
The same poll also showed that most people think it’s an important issue that should be included in the campaign. Moreover, survey suggests many people still believe in individual rights. The poll revealed that 70 percent of 1,600 people polled said the abortion issue is a personal one, related to an individual’s values and principles. Six out of 10 people answered that it was a health issue, four of 10 said it was a religious problem, and 35 percent said it was a matter of women’s rights.
The poll also suggests that many more people now understand the distinction between a life-saving therapeutic abortion, and an elective abortion – a provision that has never been allowed under Nicaraguan law.
While it’s still difficult to say how much public opinion has truly started to shift, it’s clear that political will has not budged.
Still, feminists and rights activists are celebrating the new poll and the strong turnout at the butterfly march. Both, they say hopefully, are signs that the battle to reinstate therapeutic abortion is not yet lost.
“We have achieved the de-penalization of therapeutic abortion in the conscience of the people, and that was part of our objective,” says Martha Maria Blandon, director of Ipas Central America, an organization that defends the sexual reproductive rights of women.
Blandon says the more people become aware of the issue, the more people will start to view therapeutic abortion as a basic health service and demand access to safe and modern healthcare.
“I think this poll is evidence that people, when confronted with this situation, think it’s a woman’s right to decide, not the priests’,” Blandon said.
Feminist leader Juanita Jimenez, director of MAM, says the polls show the constant campaign to educate people about the issue of therapeutic abortion is finally gaining traction against the “manipulation” of the church and state.
“All the campaigns that feminist groups have organized to try to reverse all the manipulation hasn’t been in vain,” she said.
Jimenez says a growing number of people realize the issue is a “serious problem” that mostly affects poor women who have no alternative to public health clinics. Women of economic means can still go to private clinics in Costa Rica or Miami to have a therapeutic abortion.
Jimenez says the survey numbers show that the population is aware of the hypocrisy of the rich banning therapeutic abortion for the poor, and is trying to send a message to the politicians. But so far, she says, the message doesn’t appear to be getting through.
“We wish the candidates and the politicians would be more open to listening to the population,” she said. “That’s a major deficit we still have here.”