Recently, I was in the Dominican Republic to visit our Member Association Profamilia and learn more about the state of sexual and reproductive health and rights in a country whose paradise-like environment belies deep pockets of poverty.
During the three days I spent with Profamilia, I met doctors that drove in smoldering vans without air conditioning to reach the most remote and rural communities. I met doctors who were helping girls as young as 12 access contraception and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, women and children that lined up at the crack of dawn to receive medical care. And while I knew that the Catholic country's abortion ban was among the most restrictive in the world, I came back to New York to find out that the Dominican Chamber of Deputies reinforced its abortion ban with a harmful new penal code.
Thankfully, a few days ago, Dominican President Danilo Medina vetoed the measure, urging legislators in a letter to decriminalize abortions in cases where the woman's life is at risk or in cases of rape, incest, or fetus malformation. In his letter, President Medina stated that the fundamental right to life of the pregnant woman or girl must prevail, as well as "respect for their human dignity and their mental and moral integrity." The letter also stressed the need for the country to live up to international human rights agreements signed and ratified by the Dominican Republic, including the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Violence Against Women and the Convention on the Prevention, punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women.
In his letter, the President highlighted the public health necessity to provide these services to reduce the country's high maternal mortality rate, as well as provide services to the most vulnerable. "We are one of the countries with the greatest number of pregnancies in girls and adolescents, pregnancies that are not only high-risk to the health of the mother, but often hide situations of rape and abuse," President Medina continued, stating that these issues presented the country with a "public health problem of the first order," a problem that disproportionately affects poor women in a country where 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, more than 90,000 unsafe abortions take place in the Dominican Republic each year. While these exceptions to the abortion ban will help reduce that number, all women should have access to these life-saving services. The complete criminalization of abortion violates women's rights to life and health. Beyond that, it's a failure when it comes to public health policy: restrictive laws do not make abortion disappear nor do they reduce the incidence of abortion. These laws simply put women and youth in dangerous situations that threaten their health and many times, their lives. It also makes physicians hesitant to treat the complications of unsafe abortion for fear of imprisonment.
No woman should have to risk imprisonment to access the health services she needs, wants, and deserves. This is an important step forwards for a region with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, and a critical step for a country that two years ago drew global attention when the country's total abortion ban stopped treatment for a pregnant teen with cancer.