A total ban on abortion has been reaffirmed in the Dominican Republic. “Total,” meaning that even if you are a teenage girl dying from leukemia and the only thing preventing doctors from saving your life is a first trimester pregnancy, you still may not have a legal abortion. To me, this says that, according to an extremely conservative, patriarchal view of women and girls, our worth is only as breeders of boys. It was right wing extremists who advocated, bullied, and manipulated the Dominican Republic’s public on this measure and now — as a formal state policy — they have won.
In the Dominican Republic, abortion has always been frowned upon, and it has always been illegal. We’ve always been among the handful of countries around the globe that won’t allow women and girls to legally have an abortion even if our own lives are at stake. The overwhelming political and cultural power that the Roman Catholic Church has on this Caribbean island and the fact that, until fairly recently, sex education has not even been a part of our public-school curriculum created a breeding ground for unwanted pregnancies — often among teen girls.
What this has meant, in practice, is that if a pregnant woman or girl’s life is in danger, she is expected to sacrifice her life for the wellbeing of the fetus. The mentality that says women are disposable when pregnant leads me to conclude that the Dominican Republic values the lives of boys above all else. While perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked by this, my feminist ideals didn’t protect me from the pain and despondency of seeing my worthlessness as a woman spelled out so explicitly.
There was hope, at one point. In a surprising turn of events, the country’s enormously popular president, Danilo Medina Sanchez, issued a recommendation that lawmakers amend the Criminal Code to allow abortion in the cases of rape, incest, malformations in the fetus, and, crucially, if the mother’s health was in danger.
Lawmakers approved of the reforms in 2014 and they were set to come into effect on December 19th, for the first time in Dominican history. However, the Constitutional Court blocked the reforms only weeks before this date. Local women’s advocacy groups rightfully stated that this move put women’s rights back to the year 1884 — the year the penal code was instated. That’s right. The 19th fucking century.
Abortion has been debated for decades but this sentence is all the more disgusting in the shadow of the widely-publicized case of a 16-year-old girl known as “Esperancita” (she was given an alias in the media as she was a minor at the time). Esperancita (Rosaura Almonte Hernandez) suffered from leukemia, but the treatment she required would lead to a termination of her (still very early) pregnancy. Since Dominican law states that life begins at the moment of conception, Esperancita died because the hospital refused to treat her leukemia, lest she lose the fetus. Her mother explained to the media that doctors turned them away for fear of legal repercussions — denying her daughter treatment for over a month, relenting only when faced with mounting pressure from the public and the media.
But it was too late. Esperancita, which means “little hope,” in Spanish, met the same fate as nearly 200 other Dominican women and girls who die every year from maternity complications (unsafe abortions among them). They are what Dominican women’s rights activist and gynecologist, Lillian Fondeur Quiñones, calls “the casualties of the Penal Code.”
Dominican immigrants are sent the message that we shouldn’t talk about these issues, lest it give ammunition to racists and xenophobes who already see our country as a backwards, pre-historic hellhole. As the saying goes: “You wash your dirty laundry at home.” Many people I’ve met in my years as an immigrant can barely conceal their desire to “rescue me” from my “third world” existence. I hate to feed into that mentality, and the truth is that the Dominican Republic is not the backwards plot of land and misery that charities sell to wealthy countries. But in some cases, we must make our grievances known and we must shame those who don’t care about women’s human rights.
“I want justice for my daughter. The world must know what happened to my daughter. The Penal Code killed my daughter, the only one I had… Because of this Code, doctors destroyed my daughter and they destroyed me. Nobody cared about my daughter’s life, they only cared about the pregnancy, which was a sick pregnancy, just like my daughter. It was a 3-weeks pregnancy, but for everyone else, that pregnancy was more important than my daughter. She was beautiful and strong. And she fervently wanted to live.”
Often, I tell my students that feminism — the social, political, and economic fight for women’s rights — never began at any one point. Rather, it begins anytime a girl or woman anywhere in the world says, “This is unfair, I’ve had enough.” Nonetheless, feminism is linear — there are key moments that push the global sisterhood forward and brutal setbacks that keep women and girls grounded in oppression.
The plight for Dominican women and girls has its particularities, but it pushes back against a patriarchal line of thought that seeks to silence, abuse, erase, and discard women and girls, globally. Therefore this fight is not just ours, as Dominican women and girls — it is intricately connected to the fight for the liberation of all women.
Raquel Rosario Sanchez is an activist and advocate from the Dominican Republic. Her efforts center around violence against women and girls, anti-human trafficking efforts, and death penalty abolition. Her research focuses on the construction of masculinities in the demand side of the sex industry. She is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies in Oregon.