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Chemotherapy starts for pregnant Dominican teen at center of abortion debate

By Rafael Romo, Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Sat July 28, 2012
  • Hospital officials say treatment began after days of discussions
  • Chemotherapy for the girl's illness could terminate her pregnancy
  • The Dominican Republic's constitution forbids abortion
  • The incident has sparked a renewed debate on abortion laws in the country

(CNN) -- A pregnant leukemia patient, whose life was at risk because anti-abortion laws in the Dominican Republic prevented doctors from treating her, has started receiving chemotherapy, officials said Thursday.

The 16-year-old started chemotherapy treatment in the country's capital late Tuesday night, hospital officials said.

The patient, whose identity has not been released because she's a minor and because of the hospital's privacy policy, is 10 weeks pregnant.

Doctors were hesitant to give her chemotherapy because such treatment could terminate the pregnancy -- a violation of the Dominican Constitution, which bans abortion.

Dr. Antonio Cabrera, legal representative for the Medical Center for Teachers (known by its Spanish acronym SEMMA) confirmed the news Thursday.

"The patient is receiving chemotherapy," Cabrera said. "And the hospital is following the appropriate medical protocol in this case."

Doctors at SEMMA started evaluating the teen for chemotherapy last week, pending an official decision on whether they could proceed with the treatment.

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Representatives from the Dominican Ministry of Health, the Dominican Medical College, the hospital and the girl's family talked for several days about how to proceed. A decision was made early this week, Cabrera said.

"She's a very special patient," Cabrera said. "She's a minor, she suffers from leukemia and is 10 weeks pregnant. All three factors were considered in making the decision to proceed with the chemotherapy treatment."

Dr. Amarilis Herrera, president of the Dominican Medical College, said that she and representatives from her institution met with doctors at the hospital on July 18 to evaluate the case and work together to find a solution.

In a statement, Herrera said that "bone marrow tests were sent for analysis to the United States (in order to find) the best therapeutic treatment." Both the college and the Ministry of Health favored proceeding with the treatment.

The case has sparked renewed debate over abortion in the Dominican Republic, with some lawmakers calling on officials to reconsider the abortion ban.

Earlier this week, Rosa Hernandez, the girl's mother, said she had been trying to convince doctors and the Dominican government to make an exception so that her daughter's life could 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.

Cabrera, the hospitalĀ¹s legal representative and also a doctor, said doctors will monitor the condition of the girl and the fetus constantly during the chemotherapy treatment.

"We're clinging to science and God," Cabrera said.

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Journalist Diulka Perez contributed to this report.

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