MEXICO CITY — Nicaragua's legislature is expected today to approve a tough law that outlaws all forms of abortion, including those procedures intended to save the life of a pregnant woman.
The measure has been supported by most major political parties ahead of the Nov. 5 presidential election, as they seek to win over voters in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country. Leaders of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua helped draft the bill and have mobilized followers to support it.
Medical associations in the country and international human rights groups have strongly criticized the proposal.
Since the late 1980s, two other Latin American countries have adopted similar measures -- El Salvador and Chile. At least 34 countries, mostly in Africa and the Middle East, prohibit all abortions, without exception, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a U.S.-based nonprofit advocacy group.
The new law would establish prison sentences of six to 30 years for women who abort their pregnancies and the doctors who perform the procedure.
Leaders of the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front and the ruling right-wing Liberal Alliance have said their representatives will vote for the proposal. The two groups control all but one seat in the 92-member legislature.
"The current law allows a small door in which abortions can be performed, and we are trying to close that door," said Dr. Rafael Cabrera, an obstetrician and leader of the Yes to Life Movement. "We don't believe a child should be destroyed under the pretext that a woman might die."
Cabrera and other backers of the law argue that medical science has advanced sufficiently to allow doctors to bring a fetus to the point of viability without endangering a woman's life.
But on Tuesday, doctors with the Nicaraguan Society of Gynecology and Obstetrics told a Managua news conference that the measure would endanger women and make doctors reluctant to perform life-saving procedures.
"When a woman arrives at a hospital with vaginal bleeding ... we're going to be afraid to do anything," said society President Efrain Toruno, according to the newspaper El Nuevo Diario. "If we treat her we could be prosecuted, and if we don't we could also be prosecuted."
Women's groups in Nicaragua charge that the proposed law is a cynical preelection ploy that panders to the influence of the Catholic Church. The text of the law, they note, is almost identical to a church proposal drafted this year.
Outgoing President Enrique Bolanos fast-tracked the bill, using his authority to present emergency legislation to the National Assembly.
"The worst message of this proposed law is that the lives of women don't matter to this president, or to the government or the church," said Marta Maria Blandon, Central American director of Ipas, a U.S.-based reproductive rights group.
Ipas estimates that 32,000 illegal abortions are performed in Nicaragua each year, many under unsafe conditions. Only 24 abortions authorized by law have been performed in the country in the last three years.
In 2003, a 9-year-old rape victim received an abortion under the current law's provisions.
Nearly all Latin American countries outlaw abortion, but most, including Nicaragua, allow the procedure in cases of rape and to preserve the life of a pregnant woman. Many countries, including Mexico, are working to make abortion more accessible to women who qualify for such exceptions.
"We see this proposal as part of a backlash," said Luisa Cabal of the Center for Reproductive Rights. "This not only goes against a regional and international trend, it would be a human rights violation in itself."
Ambassadors from some of the countries that donate millions of dollars in aid to Nicaragua, including Sweden and Finland, wrote to the legislators this week urging them not to rush to approve the measure. Nicaragua is one of the poorest nations in the hemisphere and depends heavily on foreign aid.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, said approval of the law could lead to lawsuits in international courts. Nicaragua is one of many Latin American countries to recognize the authority of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica.
But domestic pressures to approve the measure are strong.
An antiabortion rally this month organized by church groups attracted thousands. Many carried placards that read: "Don't support candidates who favor abortion!"
Only one of the four leading candidates in the presidential election has come out against the law -- Edmundo Jarquin of the Sandinista Renovation Movement, a dissident faction of the Sandinista Front.