Dominican vote opens door to possible easing of total abortion ban

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Congress in the Dominican Republic rejected upholding the nation’s total ban on abortion this week, approving a step that would allow the procedure for ending life-threatening pregnancies and those resulting from rape or incest.

The lawmakers in the lower house voted against a decision in May by the Dominican Senate, which turned down recommendations made by President Danilo Medina to amend the criminal code and ease the nation’s abortion ban.

The Dominican Republic is one of seven countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that have absolute bans on abortion.

The decision by the Dominican Congress on Tuesday would allow abortion in cases of rape or incest, when a mother’s life is in danger or when a foetus would not survive the pregnancy.

The contrasting decisions in each house pave the way for another vote to be introduced.

Hopes have been raised among abortion rights activists that the country’s ban on abortion - dating back to 1884 - can be finally repealed.

“The vote has shown a clear majority of house representatives standing with Dominican women’s fundamental rights to decide over their bodies and to be treated with dignity. This must be celebrated,” Robin Guittard, Caribbean campaigner at rights group Amnesty International, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The earlier vote by the Senate “would have virtually maintained a full ban on accessing abortion services ... in a context of high rates of unsafe abortions, maternal mortality and adolescent pregnancies,” he said.

It is not clear when a new vote on the ban will occur, and it could be months before lawmakers start debating the controversial issue again, campaigners say.

As in the past, moves to repeal the ban will face staunch opposition from conservative groups and the influential Catholic Church.

Janet Camilo, the country’s minister for women, has said the abortion ban is a health care issue for women and decisions not to repeal it were based on sexism.

Blanket abortion bans put women’s lives at risk by forcing women to undergo dangerous backstreet abortions, which were the cause of at least one in 10 maternal deaths in Latin America in 2014, according to Amnesty International.

In recent years, the United Nations has urged the Dominican Republic to lift its abortion ban.

Activists say the country should seize the opportunity to allow women to access a safe abortion in a country where more than 90,000 unsafe abortions occur each year.

“Now it’s imperative that Dominican lawmakers ensure that the new penal code proposed guarantees human rights and access to justice for all girls and women,” said Catalina Martinez, Latin America director at the U.S.-based Center of Reproductive Rights.

(This version of the story has been corrected to fix pronoun to he, not she, in eighth paragraph)