November 19, 2018
Criminal Penalties Violate Rights
Abortion is illegal in the Dominican Republic in all circumstances, even when the life of the pregnant woman or girl is in danger. The country’s total abortion ban has devastating consequences. Women and girls facing unplanned or unwanted pregnancies—including those resulting from rape or incest, or when the fetus will not survive—are forced to choose between clandestine abortion or continuing their pregnancies, even if they do not want to and even if they face serious health risks, including death. Some women and girls can afford to travel to another country where abortion is legal or find safe providers to help them to end a pregnancy, but many, especially those from poor and rural communities risk their health and lives to have clandestine abortions, often without any guidance from trained providers. Some suffer serious health complications, and even death, from unsafe abortion.
Melina, 26, told Human Rights Watch she had an unwanted pregnancy in 2017 when her contraceptive method failed. Already a mother of four young children, she was deeply distressed when she learned she was pregnant. She tried to end the pregnancy by drinking a tea made from herbs and plants—one of many home remedies women use to try to end pregnancies clandestinely. She began bleeding and felt intense pain in her back and abdomen. Melina felt something had gone wrong but delayed seeking medical attention because she feared being reported to authorities, or facing abuse by medical providers, for having an illegal abortion. When the pain became unbearable, she went to a public hospital and explained that she made a tea to try to end a pregnancy. The abortion was incomplete: the pregnancy had ended, but tissue remained in her uterus, putting her at risk of serious complications. The provider prescribed a medication that helps the body expel tissue from the uterus and sent her away without examining her or giving her anything to manage the pain. Melina took the medication, but the pain persisted for ten days, and she developed an infection. “I started thinking I was not going to survive it.” When she spoke with Human Rights Watch, six months later, she still suffered chronic pain and other health effects from the ordeal. “It was really intense. I suffered a lot,” she said.
The criminal code in the Dominican Republic imposes prison sentences of up to two years on women and girls who induce abortions and up to 20 years for medical professionals who provide them. Although criminal actions against women and girls who seek abortions, and those who help them, are relatively rare, the law has created pervasive fear that drives women and girls to desperate measures to end unwanted pregnancies, and leaves healthcare providers unable to protect the health and lives of their patients.
For more than two decades, legislators in the Dominican Republic have debated a new penal code. President Danilo Medina has urged legislators to decriminalize abortion in three circumstances: when the life of the woman or girl is in danger, when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, or when the fetus has serious complications incompatible with life outside of the womb. He twice vetoed penal code reforms that maintained the total abortion ban without exceptions. As of October 2018, the National Congress had not enacted any changes to the country’s criminal code on this issue, and the total criminalization of abortion in all circumstances remained in effect.
Key government officials recognize that there is a problem. Dr. José Mordán, head of the Department of Family Health at the Ministry of Public Health, told Human Rights Watch,
Abortion is a phenomenon that’s penalized by law in all its forms, with no exceptions. But we’ve always recognized that unsafe abortion is an important health problem because women have to appeal to clandestine methods to find an answer to their situation [an unwanted pregnancy]. And that creates the phenomenon of unsafe abortion.
Recent research by the Guttmacher Institute showed that restrictive laws and criminal penalties do not reduce the incidence or rate of abortions, but they make them less safe. Human Rights Watch conducted research in the Dominican Republic in early 2018 to investigate the human rights impacts of the total abortion ban. We spoke with 167 people, including women and girls, healthcare providers, and experts across four provinces. Their accounts reveal the brutal consequences of the country’s harsh abortion law.