Dominican Republic: Right-to-Life Law Kills Pregnant Teen

Posted on August 21, 2012

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Article 37 of the Constitution of the Dominican Republic (2009):  “The right to life is inviolable from conception until death.  In no instance can the death penalty be established, pronounced, or applied.”

The 16-year-old daughter of Rosa Hernandez has died.

The teen was diagnosed with leukemia, in need of an aggressive course of chemotherapy, and admitted to the hospital in July.  Liliam Fondeur, writing on 19 July, reported that the Bioethics Committee had heard the hematologists’ recommendation that it was urgent to begin chemotherapy.  But because the teen was 9 weeks pregnant, the Committee opted to wait until the pregnancy reached 12 weeks before even making a decision about beginning treatment.   Even as the doctors delayed the girl’s treatment, they reportedly made her undergo “ultrasounds to show that the baby was healthy and for her to see it moving,” reports RH Reality CheckWell, not any more.  On 17 August, with the fetus now at 13 weeks, treatment finally began; the teen failed to respond, miscarried, hemorrhaged, and died the same day.   Fondeur foresaw it all in her 19 July article in El Nacional:

“A child with leukemia needs medical help; without it she could die of hemorrhages, anemia or infection…. The group of cells Esperancita  carries in her womb will die with her, but those responsible for delaying her chemotherapy will sleep peacefully, having not contradicted legal norms.”

Good job, hardliners.  In the misguided attempt to protect a non-viable fetus, both the fetus and its mother are dead.

Why was the teen cancer victim not protected by Article 37 of the Constitution?  What of her right to life?  Why is the non-viable fetus automatically more important than a living, breathing, fully developed human being who will die without medical treatment?  In a very real sense, doesn’t this law paradoxically pronounce a death sentence on mothers (and their fetuses) in a case like this one?

Some, including Pelegrin Castillo, the architect of Article 37, have argued that the ban on abortions need not be re-examined, because there is nothing in the law that prohibits medical treatments for pregnant women.  But that’s not how the law played out in reality, is it?  Doctors delayed the teen’s treatment for some four weeks, very specifically out of a fear that treatment would cause a miscarriage.  The life of the fetus was given more importance than the life of the cancer-stricken teen.

On the battlefield and in emergency rooms, we practice triage.  The easy cases that can wait, wait.  The hopeless cases that will never make it, get palliative care only.  Then there are the urgent cases, the ones we think we can save if we move fast.  Rosa Hernandez’ daughter was in this category: she had a chance to live, just a chance, but doctors had to be swift and aggressive with their treatment.  Instead, they dickered over the life of the non-viable patient who was going to die anyway.  Whether by abortion, by chemotherapy-induced miscarriage, or through the death of its mother, that fetus was doomed, and the doctors who feared a poorly written law doomed their other patient along with it.

It’s not clear that the girl would have survived with earlier treatment.  What is clear, however, is that doctors placed the life of a fetus above the life of its desperately ill mother and denied her treatment.  I fail to understand this logic.  Even if religious-right extremists believe that women are worth nothing, that they have zero choice and zero control over their own bodies, what exactly do they think will happen to a fetus when the vessel carrying it dies?  Given the chance to save one life, why choose to extinguish two instead?

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