On the gray cobblestones outside the National Congress of the Dominican Republic in Santo Domingo, women of all ages sang, clapped and stomped their feet. They held signs reading “El Futuro Es Feminista!” (The Future Is Feminist) and “Por riesgo de vida y salud de las mujeres, yo appoyo las tres causales,” (For women’s life and health risk, I support the three causes). Their voices chanted in unison, calling for Congress to legalize abortion if the mother’s life is in danger, if the life of the fetus is in danger, or in cases of rape and incest.
Their demands — at a July 2018 protest — might sound modest in many countries that have long allowed abortion. But the Dominican Republic is one of six Central American and Caribbean countries, including El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname, and among 26 nations globally, with a total ban on abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Women who get an abortion face up to three years in prison and health professionals who perform or assist in abortions could receive between four and 10 years of jail time. Now, the Dominican Republic is taking steps to break with its neighbors, emerging as the latest test for abortion rights in a notoriously conservative region.
The country’s Congress will vote on a bill in January that could determine whether the Dominican Republic can decriminalize abortion in select cases. The country’s president, Danilo Medina, has argued since 2014 for allowing abortions in cases of a malformed fetus, when a woman’s life is at risk or when the pregnancy is the result of rape. A majority of the Dominican Republic now appears to support what has come to be called the Tres Causales (three reasons) movement. A poll conducted by Untold Research in June found that 79 percent of Dominicans agree that the country’s current laws should allow abortion when the mother’s life is at risk, 76 percent when the life of the fetus is at risk and 67 percent when it’s a case of rape or incest. Calls for change are growing increasingly public, through street protests like the one in July. And the first cracks are appearing even within the Catholic Church, where one priest has supported the movement despite staunch opposition from the institution.
We must decriminalize abortion in January.
Natalia Mármol, Dominican women’s rights activist
These winds of change come amid a broader shift in Latin America. Chile ended a total ban on abortions in 2017, to allow cases where a woman’s life is at risk. Colombia now allows abortions to save a woman’s life and preserve her physical and mental health. Uruguay permits abortion in similar situations, or if it places undue economic burden on the mother. But neither the region nor the Dominican Republic is immune from setbacks. In August, Argentina voted against legalizing abortions in a referendum. The Dominican Republic’s Congress had briefly lifted the abortion ban in all three circumstances in 2014, following Medina’s appeal, but two conservative organizations quickly filed a constitutional claim against the changed law. The lift on the ban was ruled unconstitutional and the original penal code, in place since 1884, went back into effect. Congress will again vote on whether to revise the abortion ban in January.
“We must decriminalize abortion in January,” says Natalia Mármol, a women’s rights activist in the Dominican Republic. “This could be the last chance to change the penal code.”
It was the death of 16-year-old Dominican girl Rosaura Almonte in 2012 that first stirred the Tres Causales movement. Almonte was refused chemotherapy for leukemia for three weeks as doctors debated how the treatment would impact the fetus inside her and possibly violate the country’s abortion law. Treated too late, Almonte died from complications related to her disease, rattling the country. “When society says the life of a fetus is more important than the life of a woman, it sends a message that women’s lives are not valuable,” says Paula Avila-Guillen, a human rights expert and director of Latin America Initiatives for the Women’s Equality Center in New York, who’s been tracking Tres Causales.
In 2015, the maternal mortality rate in the Dominican Republic was 92 per 100,000 live births — more than six times the rate of 14 in the U.S., according to the World Health Organization. The Dominican Republic Medical Association and the Society of Gynecology and Obstetrics estimates that nearly 20 percent of the country’s total maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortions. The country also has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America.
Tres Causales is also about recognizing the disparity in access to safe abortions, says Avila-Guillen. “Privileged women know where to get [safe] abortions,” she says. “They survive, while women in dire situations — poor women and rape victims — do not.” The movement to legalize abortions in at least three scenarios still faces challenges in a country where 69 percent of the population identifies as Catholic — practicing or not.
The country’s Catholic Church is staunchly opposed to abortion under any circumstances. One Jesuit priest, Father Mario Serrano Marte of Dajabón, broke ranks on July 12, when he said on Twitter that he views Tres Causales as “a just cause that I support and promote.” But other Catholic leaders have criticized him. “The science is clear that life begins at conception,” Bishop Jesús Castro Marte, auxiliary bishop of Santo Domingo Norte, told Dominican newspaper Diario Libre.
These sharpening differences are why the coming weeks and months before the January vote are critical for the abortion rights movement, says Cinthya Amanecer Velasco Botello, executive director of the Collective for Women and Health in the Dominican Republic. But the country as a whole, she says, is increasingly clear about what it wants. “Dominican society is pushing for the decriminalization [of abortion],” says Botello. “Conservatives and religious politicians are the only people in the way of achieving these human rights.”
That’s why most activists in the country believe their cause will prevail, despite the resistance among Catholics. “I don’t think [lawmakers] would risk the political implications [of not decriminalizing abortion],” says Mármol. There are lives at stake — lives that matter to most Dominicans.
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