DOMINICAN REPUBLIC – Abortion to save a woman’s life approved, but not more, not yet

Top photo: badge supporting three legal grounds for abortion with slogan “Life, health & dignity”

The Dominican Republic’s criminal code imposes prison sentences of up to two years on women and girls who have abortions and up to 20 years for medical professionals who provide them.

President Luis Abinader had said about a week ago that his government is working on a bill to approve the holding of a national referendum, so that the Dominican people are the ones who decide on the decriminalisation of abortion – because the issue “divides the population” of the country. “I am in favour, but it is a decision that involves many issues, not only health, but also religious,” he said in an interview with Agencia EFE, published on 19 April 2021. His stance in support of legal abortion is considered to be one of the reasons he was elected to office, however.

The Chamber of Deputies was scheduled to begin debate on the proposal on 21 April 2021, but there was no quorum. The debate was opened on 22 April and was expected to take several days.

In a 22 April 2021 report, Human Rights Watch argued against holding a referendum for this decision. They wrote: “Where access to safe and legal abortion services are unreasonably restricted, as in the Dominican Republic, the government has an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights related to sexual and reproductive health and autonomy, and these rights should not be subject to a referendum.”

Meanwhile, the news went quiet. On the evening of 28 April, the same day the law was changed in Ecuador, the issue of abortion was analysed in the Congress within the framework of the new Penal Code, which is being revised. The revised Penal Code was submitted on 28 April to its first vote in the Chamber of Deputies, and for the first time it includes a clause that allows the termination of pregnancy in the event that there is a risk to the woman’s life. This was passed!!

In the same session, however, the Deputies rejected, by 111 votes to 45, an opposition proposal to legalise the other two grounds whose approval has been demanded for decades by feminist groups, that is, rape/incest and fetal malformation incompatible with life. In fact, the two majority parties in the Congress, the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM) and the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) formally support all three grounds, but the majority of their Deputies voted against it, amid pressure from the Catholic and evangelical churches.

Deputy José Horacio Rodríguez, author of the opposition proposal, told Efe that on 28 April “a battle was simply lost”, but “it is a matter of time” before the three grounds are approved because, in his opinion, the Dominican people “are already aware of their rights”.

Sergia Galván, longstanding campaigner for abortion rights, affirmed that “what was approved on 28 April represents a serious setback” for women’s rights. The PRM has once again failed women. A Penal Code has been approved that denies fundamental rights to women and girls,” she told Efe, surrounded by dozens of colleagues, dressed in green.

This moment is not yet over, however. The feminist groups called a large demonstration for 23 May, to defend their position in the long legislative process that still lies ahead. The Penal Code may still undergo further alterations before being approved. It must be voted on again by the Chamber of Deputies on second reading and then it will go to the Senate.

Meanwhile, last week, the UN recommended that the Dominican Republic approve abortion on all three grounds and reminded the State that it has ratified international treaties according to which “denying access to the termination of pregnancy to women, particularly in the three causes, violates their right to health, privacy and in certain cases, to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment ”.

President-elect Abinader has announced he is still planning to submit the issue to a referendum.

On another note, it seems that maternal mortality is so high in the Dominican Republic not only because of deaths related to pregnancy and unsafe abortion among Dominican women but also because so many women from Haiti travel there for treatment of complications, due to the lack of hospital services for them in Haiti itself. 29% of beds in the maternity hospitals in the Dominican Republic are said to be occupied by Haitian women and 48% of the maternal mortality is attributed to Haitian women. President Abinader said he has discussed this with his counterpart from Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, and it was decided to build hospitals on the border between the two countries on the Haitian side “to be able to attend the Haitian women there”. Haiti also criminalises abortion.

SOURCES: El, by Efe, 28 April 2021 ; Human Rights Watch, by Ximena Casas, 22 April 2020 ; Agencia Efe, 19 April 2021 ; VISUAL by Ricardo Rojas, © Reuters 2021