Thursday, February 25, 2010

When the Fetus Trumps All

This is a story about Nicaragua. Actually, this is a story about a Nicaraguan woman who has been sentenced to death by her government and her church because of two medical conditions, cancer and pregnancy. Guess which one they care about more.
Nicaraguan authorities have withheld life-saving treatment from a pregnant cancer patient because it could harm the foetus and violate a total ban on abortion.

A state-run hospital has monitored the cancer spreading in the body of the 27-year-old named only as Amalia since her admission on February 12 but has not offered chemotherapy, radiotherapy or a therapeutic abortion, citing the law.

The decision has ignited furious protests from relatives and campaigners who say the woman, who has a 10-year-old daughter and is 10 weeks pregnant, will die unless treated. The cancer is suspected to have spread to her brain, lungs and breasts. They have petitioned the courts, government and the pan-regional Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to intervene.

The case has revived controversy over the 2007 law which made Nicaragua one of the few countries to prohibit abortion under any circumstances. Girls and women who seek an abortion, and health professionals who provide health services associated with abortion, face jail.

Abortion is prohibited under any circumstances. Let that sink in for a moment. Under. Any. Circumstances. Ectopic pregnancies--in which the fertilized egg attaches to the fallopian tube instead of traveling into the uterus, and which always lead to a tubal rupture and the death of the embryo within a couple of months, and frequently the death of the woman as well--must be carried to term. Let that one sink in. A woman who is found to have an embryo implanted in her fallopian tube, an embryo that by definition has no possibility of forming into a full-term baby that can be delivered and will survive outside the woman's body, is prohibited from having surgery that will remove the embryo and save her life. She simply has to wait until her fallopian tube ruptures, and then hope she can get to the hospital before she hemorrhages to death. Anencephalic fetuses--in which the brain fails to develop, leaving a tiny skull void of anything but spinal fluid, and a body that cannot sustain itself once the umbilical cord is cut--must be left in place for the full forty weeks, with the woman forced to undergo weeks of heartache carrying a doomed baby, all so she can also endure the dangers and pain of delivering a baby that may or may not already be dead by the time she is allowed to push it out of her body.

But there's more. If, like Amalia, you find you have cancer shortly after you find you are pregnant, you are not allowed to have the treatments that might save your life. Because of a ten-week-old fetus. Because as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, a 27-year-old, living, breathing, thinking, feeling, existing woman has no value compared to a ten-week-old fetus that is the size of a medium shrimp, and it certainly doesn't matter that by sentencing Amalia to a slow, painful death, said fetus will die as well (it will have reached four inches in length if she lives another month, maybe six or six and a half inches if she makes it four weeks past that). Nor does it matter that Amalia has an existing ten-year-old daughter who will be left motherless, or that she has parents, siblings, a significant other, friends. Or that she simply exists. None of that matters. The fetus in the immediate now trumps everything, even its own assured destruction when its repairable incubator is simply allowed to cease functioning.

Yeah, incubator. It's pointless to even discuss women as women, as people, under this kind of reasoning, pointless to call death what it is. Under Daniel Ortega's shameless and soulless alliance with the Church, there is no logic, and there are no longer women in Nicaragua. Just ambulatory incubators.

As Marxist rebels in the 1970s and as a revolutionary government in the 1980s, the Sandinistas championed women's rights – including limited abortion rights.After losing power in 1990 their veteran leader, Daniel Ortega, embraced Catholicism. When making a comeback in a tight 2006 election he joined conservative foes in backing a church-led iniative for a total abortion ban.

Amalia's story is only the most recent, and one of the few we've actually heard about here. Her cancer is metastatic, and even with aggressive treatment her prognosis is probably bleak. But there are untold numbers of women in similar situations who are being denied treatments that would be life-saving, to say nothing of women and girls who are pregnant as the result of rape. Amnesty International reported last summer on the total abortion ban's toll, and I don't recall it making the US papers.

Amnesty International delegates met with young girls who, having been subjected to sexual violence at the hands of close family members or friends, were compelled to carry the resulting pregnancies to term –giving birth in many instances to their own brothers or sisters –because they were denied access to alternatives. It is deeply troubling that there was a recorded rise in pregnant teenagers committing suicide by consuming poison in 2008.

Obstetricians, gynaecologists and family doctors in Nicaragua told Amnesty International that under this Penal Code they can no longer legally provide effective medical treatment for life threatening diseases in pregnant women and girls because of the potential risk to the foetus.

One doctor told Amnesty International that she prays she will not receive a patient with an anencephalic pregnancy (a condition which means the foetus cannot survive) because of the prospect of telling the woman she will be compelled to carry the pregnancy to full term, despite its devastating physiological and psychological impact on the woman.

"There’s only one way to describe what we have seen in Nicaragua: sheer horror," said Kate Gilmore. "Children are being compelled to bear children. Pregnant women are being denied essential including life saving medical care."

"What alternatives is this government offering a 10-year-old pregnant as a result of rape? And to a cancer sufferer who is denied life saving treatment just because she is pregnant, while she has other children waiting at home?" said Kate Gilmore.

"Girls pregnant as a result of incest had the courage to meet with us to speak out against the situation but President Ortega did not. It appears the Nicaraguan authorities could not stand up for the law, would not be accountable for the law nor commit themselves to its urgent repeal."

This is the Religious Right's vision for America writ large. This is the outcome when Bart Stupak gets what he wants, when the Utah legislature get what they want, when South Dakota gets what it wants. This is what happens when the venom you heard in John McCain's voice spitting "the woman's health" between gritted teeth is allowed to flow, in the name of religion, into law. Amalia is being left to die, her daughter being left without a mother, her parents without their child, Amalia without her life. All in service of the fetishizing of the fetus, in lip service to a god who I hope would be appalled, in true service to propping up power structures. Political power, religious power, brokered deals and favors traded back and forth, with women crushed at the bottom.

more from The Guardian here.


Anonymous said...

Damn, that just pisses me off on so many levels. I can remember the "back alley" operations before abortion was legal in the United States. If you were rich, you'd fly out and have an abortion; it wasn't open for discussion and nobody talked about it. However, if you weren't rich, your choices were to carry to term (and all the problems associated with that) or take a roll of the dice on your life with a backroom operation.

Damien Huffer said...

I am sitting in my office, reading this, and practically weeping... Humanity can be so incredibly disgusting sometimes.