Dominican Republic: denied an abortion, teen cancer patient dies

The case of a pregnant 16-year-old Dominican with leukemia has reignited controversy over the amended 2010 Constitution’s Article 37, which holds “that the right to life is inviolable from conception until death.” The anti-abortion amendment was part of a series of constitutional changes pushed by rightwing forces; other amendments in the 2010 document ban same-sex marriage and limit citizenship to people with Dominican parents, in effect leaving many Dominicans of Haitian descent stateless.

The pregnant teenager—called “Esperanza” or “Esperancita” in the media; her name was withheld because of her age—entered the Teachers’ Medical Insurance (Semma) hospital in Santo Domingo on July 4. The chemotherapy used to treat leukemia was likely to harm the fetus she was carrying, but the doctors refused to perform a therapeutic abortion from fear of being prosecuted under Article 37. They apparently also feared prosecution if the fetus died as a result of the chemotherapy, which they failed to provide until forced to by public pressure 20 days after the patient was admitted.

“Esperanza” didn’t respond to the chemical treatment, and her body rejected a blood transfusion on Aug. 16, according to the hospital’s Dr. Antonio Cabrera, who said she had a miscarriage the morning of Aug. 17 and then died of cardiac arrest. Since autopsy results weren’t immediately released, it was unclear whether the miscarriage was the direct cause of the girl’s death or what her chances of survival would have been if she’d had an abortion or had been given chemotherapy at the beginning of July. According to her mother, Rosa Hernández, “Esperanza” had become hopeful about her chances of recovery and had begun talking about the start of the new school year.

Feminist groups in the Dominican Republic and abroad blamed Article 37 for the girl’s death. An Aug. 18 statement by the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network (RSMLAC, for its initials in Spanish) said the treatment of “Esperanza” “was a form of unacceptable violence and torture” and called her death “a femicide carried out by political-religious alliances.” Hernández, an impoverished employee of the school system, had pleaded for a therapeutic abortion. “My daughter’s life is what’s most important,” she said. “I know that [abortion] is a sin and is illegal, but my daughter’s life comes first.” (CNN, Aug. 17; RSMLAC statement, Aug. 18; Servicio de Noticias de la Mujer de Latinamerica y el Caribe, SEMLAC, Aug. 20, via Diario Rotativo, Querétaro, Mexico; Adital, Brazil, Aug. 30)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Sept. 2.

See our last post on struggles for reproductive rights.