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Dominican Republic abortion ban stops treatment for pregnant teen with cancer

By Rafael Romo, Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed July 25, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A 16-year-old girl with leukemia hasn't received treatment because she's pregnant
  • Article 37 of the Dominican Republic's constitution forbids abortion
  • Chemotherapy for the girl's illness will likely terminate her pregnancy
  • Incident has sparked a renewed debate on abortion laws in the country

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (CNN) -- In the Dominican Republic, a ban on abortion is preventing a teenage girl from receiving treatment for a life-threatening disease.

At the Semma Hospital in the captial city of Santo Domingo, a 16-year-old girl is dying of acute leukemia. Doctors say the girl, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, needs an aggressive chemotherapy treatment. But there's one problem: the teenager is nine weeks pregnant and treatment would very likely terminate the pregnancy, a violation of Dominican anti-abortion laws.

Rosa Hernandez, the girl's mother, is trying to convince doctors and the Dominican government to make an exception so that her daughter's life can be saved. "My daughter's life is first. I know that [abortion] is a sin and that it goes against the law ... but my daughter's health is first," Hernandez said.

According to Article 37 of the Dominican constitution, "the right to life is inviolable from the moment of conception and until death." Dominican courts have interpreted this as a strict mandate against abortion. Article 37, passed in 2009, also abolished the death penalty.

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Miguel Montalvo, the director of the bioethics council that rules on the application of the law, says the council is leaning toward allowing the treatment. "At the end of the day the patient may decide for himself or herself. In this case, the family may decide what's more convenient for the patient," Montalvo said.

Women's and human rights groups are outraged, saying the girl should have received chemotherapy immediately.

Lilliam Fondeur, a women's rights activist, complains that conservative politics is preventing necessary treatment to save the teenager's life.

"How can it be possible that so much time is being wasted? That the treatment hasn't begun yet because they're still meeting, trying to decide if she has the right to receive the treatment to save her life -- that's unacceptable," Fondeur said.

Some Dominican opposition lawmakers say there should be a new debate over the abortion ban in the Caribbean country and the problems created by the constitutional ban go beyond this case. Opinion leaders like former representative Victor Terrero say clandestine abortions are also putting the lives of many women at risk.

"The constitution is going to have to be modified sooner rather than later," Terrero said. "We cannot allow under any circumstances that pregnancies that present complications for women be permitted to continue as normal."

Bautista Rojas Gomez, the Dominican minister of health, has publicly indicated he favors chemotherapy over protecting the pregnancy, but doctors are still reluctant to act for fear of prosecution.

Pelegrin Castillo, one of the architects of Article 37, says the constitutional ban does not prevent doctors from administering the treatment. It does, however, prevent them from practicing an abortion in order to treat the patient with chemotherapy.

"It's an artificial debate," Castillo said. "What we have clearly said is that in this case doctors are authorized by the constitution to treat the patient. They don't have to worry about anything. They have the mandate of protecting both lives."

And while the debate rages on around the country, back at the hospital the clock keeps ticking for the 16-year-old pregnant girl.

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Diulka Perez in Santo Domingo contributed to this report

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