On May 31, the Dominican Senate voted to uphold a total ban on abortion. The country is among six countries worldwide that have banned abortion in all circumstances, including when the life of the mother is in danger. Others are: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Vatican City, Malta, and Chile. The Senate had the opportunity to change the grim situation of reproductive rights and access in the country on Wednesday, however, they voted to uphold the archaic legislation by a margin of 27 to two.
The Dominican Republic’s abortion laws date back to 1884. President Danilo Medina Sanchez had objected to several articles in the new Penal Code (articles 107, 108, 109, and 110) and recommended the creation of a special law that would regulate, for the first time in the country’s history, the requirements and protocols for performing legal abortions in the country. This is the second time that Medina has called to decriminalize abortion in certain circumstances — according to Dominican law, the President can only object to a law twice before accepting the decisions of the Legislature and promulgating the new legislation. Medina recommended the Penal Code be modified to allow abortion under three circumstances: when the life of the mother is in danger, when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, and when the fetus has malformation that is incompatible with life. Nonetheless, the Penal Code, as it stands, was approved by both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate without modifying the existing abortion laws.
The Senate appointed a Commission made up of eight men and one woman, tasked with looking at the presidential observations and issuing a report for the Senate to vote on. The commission presented their findings before congress, resulting in an “unfavorable” position, as six of the nine congresspeople rejected the Presidential observations.
As a result of this decision, the Dominican feminist movement is forced to go back to the most elemental basics in the fight for reproductive justice: women’s right to choose whether or not they wish to give birth. In the meantime, Dominican women found guilty of getting an abortion can be sentenced to up to three years in prison. Any medical personnel who assist her in performing the abortion (doctors, nurses, midwives, or pharmacy employees, for example) face four to 10 years in prison.
Feminist leaders and activists gathered outside the Senate on Wednesday, hoping for a different outcome. When the news that the restrictions would remain intact became public, the Minister of Women, Janet Camilo, who was outside among the crowd of feminists, told the media:
“Today Congress, made up of male politicians, reminds us of who and what they are: sexist political parties and a sexist Congress who refuse to believe in women. We’ve defended the three postulates on abortion because this is a healthcare problem for Dominican women.”
Camilo told the media to analyze the issue of abortion from two different positions: First, by considering the economic cost of preventing maternal mortality rates, which, the Minister stated, is directly linked to clandestine abortion. Second, with regard to the prevalence of underage pregnancies among Dominican girls.
A study published in October 2015 by CID Gallup Latin America revealed that 77 per cent of Dominican people surveyed supported the interruption of a pregnancy in order to save the mother, if her life is in danger. Thirty two per cent of those surveyed said they supported legal abortion in cases of rape and incest. However, when asked whether women themselves should have the right to choose abortion, outside the reasons stated above, a whopping 82 per cent opposed it.
Regardless of prohibitions and regressive legislation, abortion remains common among women in the Dominican Republic. A recent study, “Abortion Situation in the Dominican Republic,” published by Profamilia (a non-profit reproductive rights organization) revealed high rates of clandestine abortion among young women. The study, conducted on multiple university campuses throughout the country, asked 2,436 students questions about abortion, finding that 295 of them had undergone a clandestine abortion and, of that group, 42.7 per cent had induced the abortion herself.
Among the women interviewed, 67.1 per cent said they knew of a woman who had performed a self-induced abortion on herself. When asked what methods the women used to perform their abortions, 69.4 per cent said that makeshift, homemade infusions were common, and 50.7 per cent stated they used a prescription drug like misoprostol (available through pharmacies and the illegal market).
The prevalence of clandestine abortion is partly to blame for the high maternal mortality rates in the Dominican Republic. Out of every 100,000 live births, approximately 150 women die. According to the Maternal Mortality Observatory of the National Institute of Health, teen girls make up 20 per cent of those deaths.
Upon learning of the Senate decision, a coalition of feminist organizations issued a joint statement, declaring:
“The Dominican state is the murderer of every woman killed due to unsafe and clandestine abortions to save her life. How many women need to die for us, as a country, to recognize that abortion must be a part of our health services?”
The Senate’s rejection of President Medina’s recommended changes to abortion laws in the Penal Code are a tough blow to Dominican feminism and the fight for reproductive justice on the Caribbean island. At the moment, among women’s rights advocates and activists, the mood is one of gloom and dejection. The fight for reproductive justice is more urgent than ever. As a Dominican woman, my hope is that feminists who live in countries with better abortion laws than mine see what happened in the Dominican Republic this week as a reminder that women’s rights can move forward, but also can easily fall backwards.
In the ongoing push and pull for women’s rights, many women and girls are left behind, particularly the most marginalized. The situation in the Dominican Republic exemplifies this. If, as the feminist movement says, my liberation is tied to yours, will you join Dominican women as we gather our strength and push forward, yet again?
Our collective liberation depends on it.