Girl, 9, in Abortion Rights Furor

Times Staff Writer

She had been raped. She was pregnant. And she was dirt poor.

But Rosa was 9. That gave her one more reason to want an abortion.

"I don't want to have to share my toys with another kid," she told a local newspaper reporter. "I take care of my toys."

So, a few days later, suffering vomiting and false contractions that knotted her stomach hard as a flexed bicep, the girl took a pill that ended the nearly four-month pregnancy in a clandestine operation in a private clinic.

But it was only the beginning of an uproar that signaled how Latin America, especially Central America, has become the focus of an international battle over abortion.

The dilemma has transfixed Nicaragua, a predominantly Roman Catholic nation where abortion is illegal except when the mother's life is in danger. Newspapers have devoted special sections to the drama. Television stations have sponsored call-in programs, featuring outraged proponents and opponents of the abortion.

A panel of doctors concluded that either pregnancy or abortion presented a threat to Rosa's life, prompting a women's group to whisk the girl away for the secret procedure. The girl and her family were kept in a safe house until the nation's attorney general ruled the abortion legal.

The nation's family affairs minister called for Rosa to be taken away from her parents. The country's highest-ranking public health official declared that abortion is a crime. The Catholic Church noted that excommunication was automatic for anyone involved in the abortion -- including Rosa and her family.

"This has opened the door to a slaughterhouse," said Msgr. Jorge Solorzano, the country's second-highest-ranking Catholic official.

Latin America, a heavily Catholic region, has always had among the world's toughest laws governing abortion. All of its Spanish-speaking countries, except Cuba, prohibit elective abortion. Most allow the procedure when the mother's life is in danger, some in cases of rape or incest and a few when the woman's health may be affected.

Women have a difficult time putting the limited opportunities into practice even in countries with laxer standards. Bolivia, where abortions are permitted when a woman's mental health is threatened, has only registered one legal abortion in three decades.

But the rise of newly democratic legislatures and the defeat of leftist regimes have allowed the Catholic Church to mount strong lobbying campaigns in the last few years to further tighten laws or eliminate legal abortions altogether. El Salvador outlawed the procedure in 1998. Honduras recently increased penalties for doctors who provide abortions.

The church and antiabortion groups in Nicaragua are now set to launch an all-out battle to further restrict abortion. More than 100 churches will simultaneously show a graphic antiabortion film to congregations this month. A march with 60,000 people is planned for Good Friday, April 18.

The effort is focused on the National Assembly, which this month will discuss a reformed criminal code that has been stalled for years over the question of whether to further penalize abortion. The idea is to convince lawmakers to change the law so that abortion would only be permitted when it occurs as a "consequence" of an operation to save a pregnant woman's life.

Rafael Cabrera, a gynecologist who heads Nicaragua's largest antiabortion group, said Rosa would have been able to give birth to the child. He pointed to an article about a girl said to be the youngest mother ever, a Peruvian who gave birth in 1939 at age 5.

"We are in an absolutely critical stage," Cabrera said. "If the field opens to abortions here, it will have a domino effect" in Central America.

Women's rights groups have launched equally fierce campaigns to preserve existing abortion rights and, in a few cases, ease restrictions. Publicity surrounding the rape of a 13-year-old girl in Mexico a few years ago resulted in some states adding exceptions to abortion bans.

The groups note World Health Organization statistics showing that one-fifth of maternal deaths in Latin America are related to unsafe abortions, the highest of any region in the world. About 20% of all pregnancies in Latin America are estimated to end in abortion.

Church Power Cited

Few of the groups involved, however, express hope of expanding women's ability to obtain abortions, citing the overwhelming reach and power of the Catholic Church. Instead, they concentrate on protecting the legal opportunities that exist.

Many women's groups also have been scared off by restrictions imposed by President Bush that prohibit U.S. government aid from flowing to organizations that provide information on abortion.

Women's groups "are very cautious about pushing the issue forward when they're beating their heads against the wall," said Kathy Hall-Martinez, director of international legal programs for the U.S.-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which monitors abortion laws worldwide. "There are efforts to move this forward; it's just a very long road."

The debate over Rosa also opened a window into a common dichotomy in Latin America. Though the region's intellectual and academic community has a decidedly leftist bent, the Catholic Church still maintains an iron grip on social mores.

The church also has made the fight for human rights a central issue, winning respect from some of the left-leaning groups that had criticized its stance against communism.

"Nicaragua is a very Catholic society and thus it has a religious concept of transcendental respect for human life," said Julio Centeno, the country's attorney general. "This is recognized in our constitution."

Rosa was 8 when she was raped in November. She was living with her parents, both illiterate, in a farming town in the central highlands of Costa Rica, part of the thousands of Nicaraguan sharecroppers who illegally cross the border into the wealthier nation to harvest sugarcane and coffee.

Rosa has provided a formal statement to the police that a Costa Rican neighbor, identified only by his last name, Barquero, 20, raped her. Barquero, who was arrested and is in custody, has denied the charges. Costa Rican prosecutors say that they want to perform a DNA test but that Nicaraguans have told them they cannot find the fetus' remains.

"The DNA test is the fundamental test. It would be the definitive test to determine whether the suspect fathered the fetus," said Sandra Castro, a spokeswoman for Costa Rica's judiciary.

The Times is not identifying Rosa or her parents because of a policy against naming rape victims. The family declined an interview.

By December, Rosa was feeling tired and sick, so her 25-year-old mother took her to see a doctor. After three days observing what they believed to be a child with anemia, the doctors realized that Rosa was pregnant.

Although abortion to protect a mother's health is legal in Costa Rica, social workers persuaded the family that Rosa should carry the child to term, said Violeta Delgado, executive secretary of the Network of Women Against Violence, the Nicaraguan group that helped Rosa obtain the abortion.

"The Costa Rican doctors ... said get fruit, vitamins and baby clothes," Delgado said. "They didn't give [the parents] information about the risks to their daughter. Nobody told them her bone structure wasn't developed, that her uterus was not the right size, that she could have a spontaneous abortion and die. They treated her like any pregnant woman."

When news of Rosa's pregnancy became public -- through a Ripley's Believe It or Not-style article in a local newspaper -- the women's group formed a commission to go to Costa Rica to help the parents. The incident soon became embroiled in international politics, and it took a week to convince the Costa Ricans to issue a passport allowing the family to go back to Nicaragua.

Once back, more turmoil awaited. Nicaragua's ministers of health and family services both called on the family to let Rosa give birth. The Catholic Church promised to provide full care and housing for the infant.

But the family was worried that nine months of pregnancy would kill their only daughter.

"We want this intervention as soon as possible, for her health and well-being," her 28-year-old father told television stations.

The family requested a medical consultation because Nicaraguan law requires three doctors to certify that the mother's life is in danger before an abortion can proceed.

Severe Risks

An ultrasound showed a seemingly normal 16-week-old fetus. Rosa was in stable condition, though suffering "extreme stress." But, in the end, the state-sponsored panel of doctors decided that either an abortion or a continued pregnancy carried severe risks.

"After an exhaustive evaluation, we conclude that the child runs a potential risk of suffering severe damage, including death, in either of the two alternatives," the commission wrote. "This should be given to the parents so they can make an informed decision."

The women's group and a lawyer representing the family decided that that final sentence gave the parents the authority to choose. At a family meeting, Rosa and her parents opted for an abortion, Delgado said. The Catholic Church has complained that it was never allowed to talk with the family to dissuade them.

The family went to a private hospital, where Rosa was turned away, crying, after doctors refused to treat her. Three private doctors separately contacted the women's group and offered to provide the abortion on condition of anonymity.

The next day, Feb. 20, the women's group took Rosa and her parents to a private clinic where she took the pill that induced the abortion. There were no medical complications.

The family is trying to put their lives back together.

Her parents have relocated to Managua, the capital, fearful that they will be ostracized if they return to their small community. They are looking for work, though both have no experience other than farming. Rosa is preparing to go back to school.

She is relieved that the ordeal is over. But she is not sure what awaits, said a psychologist who is counseling the family.

"Part of her is still a child. But part of her is now mature," said Marta Maria Blandon, the psychologist. "This is a child whose childhood has been aborted."

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Times special correspondents Auriana Koutnik in San Jose, Costa Rica, and Alexander Renderos in San Salvador contributed to this report.

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