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9 Year-Old Rape Victim Stirs Abortion Fight

by Nefer Munoz

Catholic Hospitals Refusing Contraception To Rape Victims
(IPS) SAN JOSE -- The plight of a nine year old Nicaraguan girl who was raped in Costa Rica and is now pregnant has triggered a heated debate over abortion in the heavily Catholic region of Central America.

Women's rights activists, conservative organizations and the Catholic Church have all jumped into the fray, setting forth their arguments over what the girl's family, poor Nicaraguan farmworkers who sought work in Costa Rica, should be allowed to do.

The pregnancy could endanger the life of the girl, who was also infected with two sexually transmitted diseases, for which treatment has not begun in order to avoid harming the fetus, according to her doctors.

But a Nicaraguan Health Ministry medical board warned that an abortion would pose as much risk to the girl's life as carrying the pregnancy to term.

Although abortion is illegal in Nicaragua, it is permitted under certain circumstances, such as if the mother's life is in danger, which must be confirmed by three specialists.

Nicaragua's Procuradoria de la Ninez, the child welfare office, maintains that an abortion would be the best way to guarantee the girl's safety, growth and development.

Her parents, Francisco Fletes and Rosa Reyes, initially said their daughter would carry the baby to term. But on Feb. 12 they abruptly removed her from the hospital to which she had been admitted in San Jose, and took her to Managua, where they requested permission for her to undergo an abortion.

Women's rights groups offered the family plane tickets to Cuba or the United States, where abortion is legal, in case Nicaraguan authorities failed to authorize the procedure.

But the Catholic Church and other groups raised howls of protest, demanding that the pregnancy go forward.

"It is outrageous for a little girl to be used as a guinea pig because of ideological questions between adults," said Costa Rican minister of children's affairs, Rosalia Gil, who asked activists not to intervene.

Gil said the decision should take into account all aspects of the case, including legal, moral, spiritual and psychological factors.

The girl, whose identity has been kept in confidence, was living with her family in the rural Costa Rican province of Turrialba, 50 kms east of San Jose, which draws thousands of Nicaraguans every year during the coffee harvest.

The suspected rapist, a 23 year old Costa Rican farmworker whose last name is Barquero, has been placed under preventive arrest. However, he has demanded DNA tests to prove his innocence, and says the real culprit is likely to be found among the girl's family or friends.

On Thursday, authorities in Costa Rica reported that they were investigating the case of another Nicaraguan girl, age 11, who was also raped and impregnated.

The legal investigation agency carrying out the probe said the girl lived in La Cruz de Guanacaste, a village on the border with Nicaragua.

"This dramatic case (of the nine year old girl) is being used to wave ideological banners, when what should be given top priority is the child's life," Carlos Emilio Lopez, Nicaragua's procurator of child welfare, remarked to IPS this week.

"What should take precedence here is a human right that is consecrated in the Costa Rican and Nicaraguan codes on child welfare: the best interests of the child. That means the actions that should be taken are those that best protect her life, growth and development," Lopez added.

The official, who has become one of the family's chief advisers, reported that the girl was in a shelter on the outskirts of Managua, where she could be kept away from the media.

According to the latest medical report, she was suffering severe stress and heavy vomiting, and continuously repeated that she did not want to die.

The lawyers representing the family are studying the possibility of taking legal action against the Costa Rican state, which they accuse of discriminatory treatment against the family and of failing to facilitate access by the parents to adequate information on their daughter's situation.

But medical authorities in Costa Rica said she had received the best medical care.

The Fletes Reyes family had come to Costa Rica, whose inhabitants enjoy the highest standard of living in Central America, five years ago as undocumented immigrants, fleeing the severe economic crisis in Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the Americas.

According to official statistics, 226,000 legal Nicaraguan immigrants, and tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants, are living in this country of 3.8 million.

The problem of teen pregnancy is another phenomenon of concern to politicians, doctors, and social scientists in Central America.

Figures from the Costa Rican National Institute of Statistics and Censuses indicate that 15,461 girls under the age of 19 gave birth in this country in 2001, accounting for 20 percent of all births a proportion that is even higher in the rest of Central America.

"It is a very serious problem, because many of these girls conceal their pregnancies almost to the moment that they give birth, which generates negative consequences for their children," Maria Isabel Solis, with the Costa Rican Social Security Institute (CCSS), commented to IPS.

CCSS studies found that 74 percent of teen pregnancies end in premature birth, which drives up the infant mortality rate, said Solis.

A report drawn up by the CCSS and the University of Costa Rica found that 30 percent of teen pregnancies occur among girls who have dropped out of school, and 29 percent among girls from broken homes or dysfunctional families.

In Nicaragua, the director of the office on Migration and Foreigners, Luis Rodolfo Toruno, said Wednesday that he had already granted the Fletes Reyes family three safe conducts they had requested, which would allow them to travel to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba or any country in Central America.

"I don't know if they want to take the girl out or not. I was under the understanding that she was in the hospital," said Toruno.

The latest indication was that the family had decided to go through with an abortion, which would be practiced outside Nicaragua.

Representatives of the United Nations children's fund, UNICEF, told IPS that according to data compiled from different sources, 15 million teenagers under the age of 18 give birth worldwide annually, equivalent to 10 percent of all births.

A full 80 percent of births to teenage mothers occur in developing countries.

The risk of death during childbirth is twice as high for 15 to 18 year olds as for women over 18, and five times greater for girls under 15. An estimated 4.4 million teenage girls undergo abortions in substandard conditions every year.

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Albion Monitor February 18, 2003 (

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