Pregnant teen with cancer stirs abortion debate in Dominican Republic

July 25, 2012

BOGOTA (TrustLaw) – When gynaecologist Lilliam Fondeur recently wrote about the plight of a pregnant teenager diagnosed with acute leukaemia in her column in the Dominican Republic’s El Nacional newspaper, little did she know it would revive debate about the country’s blanket ban on abortion and stir public support in favour of the young girl.

Following a change to the constitution in 2010, abortion in the Dominican Republic is banned under any circumstances, even when the mother’s health or life is in danger.

In recent weeks, Fondeur and local women’s rights groups have been campaigning for the 16-year-old girl, who is around 10 weeks pregnant, to undergo potentially life-saving chemotherapy to treat the cancer.

Fondeur tells me rounds of chemotherapy will severely affect, and possibly kill the foetus, which would be regarded as a crime under the country’s stringent abortion laws.

“The treatment will very likely deform the foetus. The young girl should be able to get an abortion as well as the treatment. But doctors in the public health system are afraid to carry out the procedure because it’s unconstitutional,” Fondeur said by telephone from Santo Domingo.

The case of the girl, known as Esperancita, has dominated national headlines over the last week, and there has been an outpouring of support on social media networks for the girl and her mother, who’s been “begging” the ministry of health to authorise the treatment her daughter quickly needs, Fondeur says.

Following mounting public pressure and after several weeks of delay, Esperancita finally underwent chemotherapy on Tuesday, according to local press reports.

“The hospital said it has started the treatment but it’s not clear whether this has really happened. The facts of the case have all been covered up. The doctors should have started treating the young girl earlier. Why the delay?” Foudeur said.

“We hope the case of this girl serves as a symbol to show that the life of a mother must always come first,” she added.

For Fondeur, Esperancita’s case also highlights social inequality in the Dominican Republic, in a country where one in three people live in poverty.

“It’s also a symbol of the plight of poor, young mothers who have to use the public health system. With money, rich women can buy abortions but poor mothers simply don’t have that choice.”

Women who can afford to pay for an abortion can find private doctors willing to perform the procedure and they can also travel abroad, often to the United States to have an abortion there, Fondeur said.

The Dominican Republic’s influential Catholic Church along with a powerful Conservative lobby in Congress, are factors behind the country’s stringent abortion laws, Fondeur says.

Rights group Amnesty International says that in countries where abortion is totally banned, the rates of maternal mortality rise because doctors are unable or are too afraid to provide life-saving treatment when it can affect a pregnancy, even when it’s the only way to save a mother’s life.

The Dominican Republic is not the only country with stringent abortion laws in Central America.

Nicaragua and El Salvador have also forbidden abortion, even in cases of rape, incest, foetal malformation, or if the life of the mother or foetus is in danger.

Picture caption: A man sits near a monument as pigeons fly above in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, March 1, 2007. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

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