‘Las tres causales’ son un derecho humano

By Shannon Garrido, Editor-in-chief

“Las tres causales,” or “the three causes,” is the never-ending debate that has hundreds of thousands of Dominican women dressed in green protesting for their right to abortion. 

The nearly 20-year-old movement demands the legal right to terminate a pregnancy on only three grounds: when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, if the woman’s life is at risk, or when the fetus becomes incompatible with life.

This Valentine’s day, while others celebrated love and companionship, Dominican women were buried in disappointment. After so much protest, the Senate of the Dominican Republic approved a second reading of the reformed draft of the Penal Code that recognizes and applies people’s fundamental rights without these three causes. The same day, sixteen-year-old Esmeralda Richiez bled out in her bathroom after her math teacher, who is accused of having inappropriate relations with her, gave her abortion pills. 

Abortion in the Dominican Republic has been penalized since 1884, with sentences of up to two years for women and girls who have abortions, and up to 20 years for medical professionals who perform them. This forces many women and young girls like Esmeralda to seek abortion via drastic measures that put their lives at risk. 

With some of the highest levels of teen pregnancy rates in Latin America—one in every four women before turning 18—the Dominican Republic has undoubtedly shown that outdated conservative ideology, and the chokehold the church has on political affairs, matter more than the lives of women.  

The Church, as well as the religious population itself, continue to be a huge benefactor in Dominican politics.

When exiled writer and politician Juan Bosch won the presidency by a landslide in 1962 and framed a new democratic constitution, the socio-economic elite enlisted support, which included the Catholic Church, to oppose his presidency

Bosch was overthrown seven months after his inauguration, prompting  years of civil unrest and an American intervention that led to authoritarian leader Joaquin Balaguer’s rise to power for 20 years. Prior to his reign, Balaguer worked as a channel of communication between the Catholic Church and then-dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. 

Balaguer shared a decent relationship with the Catholic Church that sustained during his final run as leader of the nation. 

In 2013, Magaly Pineda, director of the Research Center for Women’s Action (CIPAF), stated that this antiquated law penalizing abortion at all costs continues to prevail because the Catholic Church wants it to. 

Current President Luis Abinader spoke on his position in favor of the three causes during his 2020 campaign, yet over time, has made it clear that due to the relationship between religious entities and abortion, it would not be possible for his party to support the cause. 

“My position on the three causes is my personal opinion, but this implies religious issues, [and] in a party like the PRM, which is a tolerant party, I cannot impose that position on deputies who from a religious point of view, have another type of thought and idea”, Abinader said when answering questions from journalists at the National Palace.

Abinader’s response proves that religious ideals take precedence over social change. Not to mention it became clear that he had used—and falsely supported—this issue as a campaigning strategy. 

In an interview with the Beacon, Lia Hernandez, a representative for CIPAF and active participant in the movement, said “that moment was what triggered the movement to say ‘hey, but what about us?’ We supported your campaign, and there was clear support from the president for women’s rights.”

Several protests have taken place from 2020 to now as this new administration took charge. Protesters camped out in front of the national palace for 73 days and this month, testimonies were given in front of Congress following the news that the code was passed yet again without the three causes. 

Most members of the Chamber of Deputies, or Congress, which consists of 190 members, continue to believe that the three causes should not be in the penal code because it violates the constitution, which guarantees life from conception to death. 

In an interview with the Beacon, Manuel Oviedo Estrada, president of the Dominican Party for Change (DXC), said that this topic is highly debated because the Congress is obligated to protect “all” lives. 

“Compliance with this mandate that the legislators, in my opinion, have made is a fair interpretation of what the conservation of life is,” said Estrada.

In his opinion, the muddiest part of the three causes would be in the case of a mother losing her life if she did not terminate her pregnancy. 

Estrada affirmed that “if it’s between the life of the mother or the life of the unborn person, which of the two would be given priority? That is a medical decision; that is not a court decision.” 

He explains that Congress is not trying to push the three causes aside, but rather enforce them as public health law. 

Hernandez states that the three causes “were requested [to be] in a health law, and then Congress decided to change the penal code. Historically, the subject has been jumping around, [and now that] we have arrived at the penal code, Congress says that it should be [put] into ‘a special law,’ which is inconsistent because for you to have it in a special law, you must not mention abortion anywhere in the penal code.”

Through all this back and forth on efforts  to decriminalize abortion, it becomes strikingly clear that very little thought, understanding, or even sympathy is granted to women. Terrifying and heartfelt testimonies from women across the country are being heard online, at protests, and in the Chamber of Deputies, but there is no validation. The policymakers of the country show  no progress in moving this proposition forward. 

Dominican women have lost too much for this to still be a red tape inconvenience for policymakers. On average, there are 25,000 cases of serious complications among women who experienced clandestine abortion in the Dominican Republic.

This is because the Dominican Republic maintains one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in Latin America. It is estimated that unsafe abortions cause 13 percent of all maternal deaths. In recent years, more than 1,135 women have died due to preventable causes.

For many women, abortion is inevitable. It is widely considered a low-risk procedure, yet abortion-related deaths occur mostly in the context of unsafe practices and account for 8 percent of maternal deaths—making them a top contributor to maternal deaths globally. There is an increasing number of unsafe abortions because of restrictive abortion policies as women resort to seeking abortions covertly. A study of 162 countries found that maternal mortality rates are lower in countries with more flexible abortion access laws. 

Estrada believes that abortion should not be considered a solution, but that the government should put its resources into comprehensive sexual education and accessible contraceptives—something already scarce in the Dominican Republic. The United Nations has shown that public educators have failed to provide scientifically accurate, rights-based sexuality education in Dominican schools.

However, while comprehensive sexual education and access to contraception is of course a contributor to reducing rates of unwanted pregnancies, it is not the end-all solution. 

Unwanted pregnancies occur even in the countries with the best sexual education and contraceptive devices. According to the World Health Organization, even in these countries, it is still important to provide women and girls with the choice to have children. 

Regardless, the current government doesn’t seem to have much of a plan to change the state of sexual education and prevention in the nation. 

According to Estrada, Congress has yet to put forward legislation because it can “only be done at an executive level.”

Thus, the same legislators with the power to penalize abortion don’t even have the ability to change the state of sexual education in the nation.  

According to Estrada, in the case of unwanted pregnancies as a result of rape or incest, it would be wrong to punish the baby. 

“An innocent child, a human being who is not aware of what happened, is the one who pays with [their] life,” he said. 

In cases where a woman or girl is already stripped of her ability to give consent, she also has no choice in whether or not to carry out a pregnancy and/or raise a child that is a product of that abuse. 

How did we get here? Are our lives worth so little that they can be dictated by outdated patriarchal philosophies? 

“There is pressure from a very, very strong religious political sector,” Hernandez said. “In this Congress, there are many far-right political actors and the church is very involved.” 

She cited many examples, including the time when Congress invited YouTuber Agustín Laje, an ultra-conservative right from Argentina, to meet with deputies. He is a man who openly opposes abortion, and proudly “fights” feminism and gender ideology. 

In March of 2021, the Congress invited Bishop Victor Masalles, the president of the Pastoral Commission for Life of the Episcopate, to discuss the abortion law, but did not reach out to the feminist groups that advocate for decriminalizing abortion. 

The opinions of these religious, far-right groups are not representative of public opinion, as according to the 2019 Barometer for the Americas, 61 percent of Dominicans agree with abortion when the health of the mother is at risk or when it is established that the fetus is not viable due to malformations. 

Dominican women are not asking for much. We are simply asking not to die when it’s preventable and not to suffer the mental and physical trauma of giving birth to an unviable baby. We are asking the state to put victims of sexual abuse and incest—the women who are on this earth now—before the unborn. 

Dominican women make up almost 40 percent of the workforce, standing out in the health and education sectors. Young girls like Esmeralda deserve to live to see their abusers persecuted. Instead, they are sent to an early grave by the state. The choice to live, and the choice to live life to the fullest extent is not a privilege, but a right. They aren’t political pawns, they are human beings. From young girls like Esmeralda and beyond, “the three causes” are their human right, and if something doesn’t change quickly, Esmeralda won’t be the last of these tragedies. 

“Sex education to decide, contraception to avoid, and ‘the three causes’ so we don’t die,” said Hernandez.