The lives of these women depended on an abortion that was denied them. One of them died, together with her baby, and the other survived by a miracle. Here are their stories.
By Keyling T. Romero (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – Leslie Briceno was convinced that she was going to die. What she feared most wasn’t death itself, but the life that her eight-year-old son would have without her. She wept with frustration and impotence in her hospital bed, where there were dozens of doctors but no one did anything to help her. She thought about her dreams and the illusions she’d had a week ago when they told her that she was going to be a mother once again. She began to cry anew.
More than twenty hours previously, she’d arrived at that hospital with severe pain in her uterus. When they examined her, the doctors told her that she had an ectopic pregnancy. In other words, the fertilized egg hadn’t lodged in the uterus, but had remained in one of her ovaries. As a result, it couldn’t develop, but the worst thing was that if they didn’t remove it soon, the ovary would burst and she would die.
Leslie understood immediately that that diagnosis was a death sentence for her. Three years before, she’d accompanied a group of women who were demanding the decriminalization of therapeutic abortions. Since 2007, Nicaragua has been one of only five countries in the world in which all types of abortions are completely prohibited.
In many cases, this prohibition has led to the death of the pregnant woman, along with her baby. One such case was that of Cruz Selena Centeno, 20 years old, who died in 2017 after carrying her dead child inside for over 24 hours, because the doctors refused to allow her to have a therapeutic abortion.
There are no official records of the maternal deaths that have occurred for the lack of a timely therapeutic abortion. The official data only lists maternal deaths from hemorrhaging, infections and other complications. According to the epidemiology bulletin that the Health Ministry publishes, up through the thirty-ninth week of this year there’d been 37 maternal deaths, three more than last year at the same date.
Before June 16, 2010, Lesbia Chavarria didn’t condone any kind of abortion. To her, it was a sin. Until she saw her daughter, Leslie Briceno, 32, writhing in pain while the doctors did nothing to save her. At that moment, she told them desperately: “I don’t care what the law says. What I care about is keeping my daughter alive. Do whatever you need to do, so she leaves here alive.”
Her pleas went unheard. The only thing the doctors told her was that they couldn’t do anything until the hospital’s medical board – who were supposedly meeting to analyze the case – gave them the go-ahead to operate. Further, even though Leslie’s pain was increasing hour by hour since her arrival, they couldn’t anesthetize her, because if they did so they wouldn’t know when the embryo died. They were waiting for it to die, so that they could operate on her.
Lesia also tried to have her daughter transferred to another hospital in a country where they could perform the abortion, but this option was also denied her.
While close to death, Leslie thought about the last time that she participated in a march. On that occasion, she had demonstrated with a group of women outside of the National Assembly, marching to demand the repeal of Article 165 of the Nicaraguan Penal Code, which allowed therapeutic abortions. Leslie had accompanied the group of women in her role as a lawyer and an activist.
“It was incredible for me to realize that something that I had struggled against and expressed was really going to affect my own life. We think that certain things will never happen to us. But at that moment, I thought to myself: “Wow! I’d never have thought that three years later I’d find myself demanding an abortion with all my strength because it was necessary to save my life,” recalled Leslie Briceno, eight years later.
At midnight on June 17, 2010, in her hospital room in Managua, Leslie Briceno had a miracle that prolonged her life. A woman doctor who had recently begun her shift decided on her own volition to give Leslie a therapeutic abortion. “I’m taking this woman into the operating room, because if I don’t she’ll die,” Leslie heard her say through the pain that consumed her.
The next day the same doctor told her that in the exact moment that they were operating, the embryo was causing an internal hemorrhage; if they had waited longer, Leslie would almost certainly have died.
“I’m super grateful to that doctor, because she was truly a courageous woman who decided to save my life. I was left with just half of my left ovary. I not only carry that mark in my internal organs, but I also carry the emotional scars,” she confided.
A dead child in her womb
Cruz Selena Centeno, 20 years old, didn’t get the same opportunity to live that Leslie Briceno did. She was forced to carry her dead child in her womb, and left without the aid of a therapeutic abortion from the hospital where they were attending her.
According to her husband, Francisco Javier Carvajal, she had initially been in the hospital for two weeks, but was then released although she had liver problems and low platelets.
“Her health worsened, and we decided to take her to a private doctor. However, he referred us back to the hospital: she was anemic and had hepatitis, and he couldn’t help her. He recommended we take her right to the hospital and gave us the letter of transfer,” Carvajal told journalist Eddy Lopez.
On September 6, 2017, the director of the Oscar Danilo Rosales Teaching Hospital, or HEODRA, in Leon, Nicaragua, allegedly told them that the baby that Cruz Selena had been carrying for six months had died, and that the family should take her home with the dead baby still in her womb. They refused to do so and demanded that the hospital remove the fetus and save her life. It was then that “the doctors told them that they couldn’t operate to remove the dead baby because Cruz’ health condition was poor,” affirms an article published in the newspaper “La Prensa”.
A little after ten on September 12, 2017, Cruz Selena Centeno died. Her family members sued the hospital for medical negligence, but the widower later commented to the Niu news team that the family eventually decided to abandon the case and to let “the body of Cruz Selena rest in peace.” For that same reason, one year after her death, they preferred not to offer any further declarations.
Over 200 people detained or denounced for abortion
According to investigations carried out by Human Rights Watch, Nicaragua has high rates of domestic and sexual violence. This leaves adolescent girls and young women particularly exposed to the risk of an undesired pregnancy as the result of rape. However, the state doesn’t publish the estimated numbers of illegal abortions, nor the cases of women, girls or abortion providers who are arrested, accused or sentenced for carrying out abortions.
A 2016 report cited in the document “Nicaragua: the prohibition of abortion creates risks for health and life” published in July 2017, indicates that between 2003 and 2013, 290 people were either denounced or detained due to the prohibition of abortion.
Abortion was partially decriminalized for 169 years of Nicaragua’s history, until in 2007 Daniel Ortega’s government decided to criminalize it completely, including all types of abortion. This action, according to experts, was one more strategy to gain the support of the Catholic Church.
The cases of Cruz Selena Centeno and of Leslie Briceno are only a sample of the hundreds of cases that remain hidden and are rarely brought to light.
“We can only understand the full magnitude of this law when we experience it in our own life. It’s true that as a human rights activist I supported therapeutic abortion, but to experience it in your own flesh makes you reaffirm that it is truly is a just cause,” affirmed Leslie Briceno.