Saving one life to lose another


As I write this, a sixteen-year-old girl in the Dominican Republic is undergoing chemotherapy for acute leukaemia at SEMMA Hospital, in the capital, Santa Domingo.

This would be unremarkable had she not previously been refused treatment because she was 10 weeks pregnant. Since 2009, the Dominican Republic has enforced a total ban on abortion and the hospital feared repercussions should the chemo harm the foetus.

A blanket ban means no abortion in cases of rape, incest, severe foetal abnormality and, as in this case, when the pregnant woman’s life is in danger.

The girl has been dubbed Esperancita by a sympathetic press whose interest led to widespread public support and mounting pressure for authorities to issue her an


The case had dominated the headlines for weeks with authorities finally caving in, citing the girl’s youth as a major factor.  ‘She's a very special patient’, said a SEMMA legal representative, meaning other women may not be so lucky. 

Esperancita’s case demonstrates the (often literal) fatal flaw in the anti-abortion movement that claims to hold all human life sacred but is willing to sacrifice the lives of women.

The Dominican Republic’s constitution states ‘the right to life is inviolable from the moment of conception and until death’. From conception. In countries with blanket abortion bans, a fertilised egg quite literally has more rights than the woman carrying it.

Nicaragua has also seen a resurgence of such laws since 2007, when even therapeutic abortions were criminalised. That year, Human Rights Watch reported that ‘scores’ of pregnant women had died from conditions including kidney failure because they were denied treatment. There was at least one case of a woman dying from ectopic pregnancy, an almost-always fatal (to both woman and foetus) condition where the fertislised egg attaches to tissue outside the uterus. Another woman, severely hemorrhaging before a group of fearful doctors, died from a heart attack. The foetus didn’t survive.

Anti-abortion activists scored quite a coup with their claim to the pro-life moniker. After all, if they are pro-life, that makes their opponents pro-death, right? But this draconian ban on abortion, coming as it does amidst severe restrictions on family planning, is less a defence of the sanctity of human life and more an all out attack on the autonomy and safety of women. Women across the world are not been given adequate information on how to manage their sexual health. When they fall pregnant, they are forced to carry to term, even if it kills them.

Anti-abortioners would have us believe that giving birth is nothing more than a minor inconvenience. But half a million women die from pregnancy and childbirth complications each year, many of whom could have been saved had they had access to birth control.

When women are denied the ability to choose if and when they get pregnant and whether or not to proceed with the pregnancy, they are treated, as Jezebel writer Erin Gloria Ryan put it, as little more than ‘passive baby holder(s)’.

Ryan was lamenting the attempts of the Personhood movement in the US to legally declare personhood from the moment of conception. While they are yet unsuccessful, the reproductive rights of American women have taken a battering in recent years. Increased waiting times for abortions, mandatory ultrasounds and conscious clauses allowing medical professionals to refuse emergency birth control on the grounds of religious belief, are making it increasingly difficult for women to receive adequate health care. Some women are even being arrested for the ‘crime’ of having a miscarriage.

The US pro-life movement claims they protecting the ‘unborn’ but they also conduct their war on abortion in a manner that undermines women’s access to birth control and sexual health.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the relentless attacks on Planned Parenthood (PP), America’s largest women’s health care provider. Derisively and erroneously denounced as an ‘abortion mill’, PP has been weathering moves to strip it of public funding.

Pro-lifers say this is to stop them ‘killing babies’, but abortions account for only 3 percent of PP’s services. Others include sex education and cancer screenings. However, the vast majority (76 percent) of the three million (mostly) women who visit PP each year want birth control.

Earlier this year, Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, stated one of his plans for the presidency, ‘Planned Parenthood, we’re going to get rid of that.’ One in five American women will visit a PP in their lifetime. Get rid of PP and you shut down millions of women’s ability to control their own fertility.

As goes America, so goes the world.  From Spain to Turkey to Australia, the anti-abortion movement is galvanizing. If they win, women will lose. The more abortion is restricted the less the life of a pregnant woman is valued.

There are, no doubt, many who oppose abortion because they genuinely believe it is murder. That is their opinion and they have the right to it. But when they actively legislate to restrict women’s rights to information, to education, and access to basic health services, their claim to be pro-life is tossed out the window.

You cannot be ‘pro-life’ when your actions result in the diminished health and death of women, and quite often, the death of the foetus you are claiming to save.

It is a pretence that must be fought by all those who value the life a woman more than the life of a fertilised egg.