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Girl, 9, in Abortion Rights Furor

Rosa became pregnant after she was raped. A family decision to abort has made Latin America the focus of an international uproar.

March 23, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — She had been raped. She was pregnant. And she was dirt poor.

But Rosa was 9. That gave her one more reason to want an abortion.

"I don't want to have to share my toys with another kid," she told a local newspaper reporter. "I take care of my toys."

So, a few days later, suffering vomiting and false contractions that knotted her stomach hard as a flexed bicep, the girl took a pill that ended the nearly four-month pregnancy in a clandestine operation in a private clinic.

But it was only the beginning of an uproar that signaled how Latin America, especially Central America, has become the focus of an international battle over abortion.

The dilemma has transfixed Nicaragua, a predominantly Roman Catholic nation where abortion is illegal except when the mother's life is in danger. Newspapers have devoted special sections to the drama. Television stations have sponsored call-in programs, featuring outraged proponents and opponents of the abortion.

A panel of doctors concluded that either pregnancy or abortion presented a threat to Rosa's life, prompting a women's group to whisk the girl away for the secret procedure. The girl and her family were kept in a safe house until the nation's attorney general ruled the abortion legal.

The nation's family affairs minister called for Rosa to be taken away from her parents. The country's highest-ranking public health official declared that abortion is a crime. The Catholic Church noted that excommunication was automatic for anyone involved in the abortion -- including Rosa and her family.

"This has opened the door to a slaughterhouse," said Msgr. Jorge Solorzano, the country's second-highest-ranking Catholic official.

Latin America, a heavily Catholic region, has always had among the world's toughest laws governing abortion. All of its Spanish-speaking countries, except Cuba, prohibit elective abortion. Most allow the procedure when the mother's life is in danger, some in cases of rape or incest and a few when the woman's health may be affected.

Women have a difficult time putting the limited opportunities into practice even in countries with laxer standards. Bolivia, where abortions are permitted when a woman's mental health is threatened, has only registered one legal abortion in three decades.

But the rise of newly democratic legislatures and the defeat of leftist regimes have allowed the Catholic Church to mount strong lobbying campaigns in the last few years to further tighten laws or eliminate legal abortions altogether. El Salvador outlawed the procedure in 1998. Honduras recently increased penalties for doctors who provide abortions.

The church and antiabortion groups in Nicaragua are now set to launch an all-out battle to further restrict abortion. More than 100 churches will simultaneously show a graphic antiabortion film to congregations this month. A march with 60,000 people is planned for Good Friday, April 18.

The effort is focused on the National Assembly, which this month will discuss a reformed criminal code that has been stalled for years over the question of whether to further penalize abortion. The idea is to convince lawmakers to change the law so that abortion would only be permitted when it occurs as a "consequence" of an operation to save a pregnant woman's life.

Rafael Cabrera, a gynecologist who heads Nicaragua's largest antiabortion group, said Rosa would have been able to give birth to the child. He pointed to an article about a girl said to be the youngest mother ever, a Peruvian who gave birth in 1939 at age 5.

"We are in an absolutely critical stage," Cabrera said. "If the field opens to abortions here, it will have a domino effect" in Central America.

Women's rights groups have launched equally fierce campaigns to preserve existing abortion rights and, in a few cases, ease restrictions. Publicity surrounding the rape of a 13-year-old girl in Mexico a few years ago resulted in some states adding exceptions to abortion bans.

The groups note World Health Organization statistics showing that one-fifth of maternal deaths in Latin America are related to unsafe abortions, the highest of any region in the world. About 20% of all pregnancies in Latin America are estimated to end in abortion.

Church Power Cited

Few of the groups involved, however, express hope of expanding women's ability to obtain abortions, citing the overwhelming reach and power of the Catholic Church. Instead, they concentrate on protecting the legal opportunities that exist.

Many women's groups also have been scared off by restrictions imposed by President Bush that prohibit U.S. government aid from flowing to organizations that provide information on abortion.

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