A film by Holen Sabrina Kahn and Alessandra Zek, Chicken & Egg Pictures, 2014 (65 min), in Spanish with English subtitles
A review by Marge Berer
This is a film about Daniel Ortega’s betrayal of Nicaraguan women. Made over a period of several years, this documentary film features the experiences of young, rural, pregnant women who arrive at a public hospital’s emergency room in Nicaragua, many of them adolescents, many as young as 13 years old, and anywhere from 16-17 weeks pregnant onwards, with life-threatening obstetric conditions.
These conditions range from placenta praevia in a twin pregnancy to advanced uterine cancer whose treatment might affect the embryo, to haemorrhage, sepsis and eclampsia. Some are miscarrying, some end up with stillbirths, and some have attempted unsafe abortions on their own. What happens to them in the hospital is shown through the eyes of a highly professional and highly caring obstetrician-gynaecologist, Dr. Carla Cerrato, who is often the first to arrive at the hospital each day and the last to leave. If there are 60 patients in a day, she says, she probably treats 30 of them and supervises three other doctors who treat the rest.
The story that emerges, as the film shows Dr. Cerrato helping one woman after another, is a familiar one by now from Central America, but also one that implicates the one-time superhero of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, who deposed a dictator and began to transform the country. However, when after many years he lost the presidency in an election, he sold out to the Catholic Church in order to obtain enough votes to win again in 2007. The payback, his betrayal of women, was to implement a total ban on abortion even when it is necessary to save a woman’s life ‒ even though Nicaraguan law had permitted therapeutic abortion for 130 years.
When the film opens, several women’s deaths are presented that occurred as a direct result of this law. Pregnant women with wanted pregnancies and serious but treatable complications were left untreated in their hospital beds by medical professionals too frightened to do anything to help. Why? Because although the pregnancies were nonviable, the law forbids terminating the pregnancy as long as a fetal heartbeat can be detected. The doctors involved are caught between implementing the medical protocols they had been taught, which unequivocally tell them to provide the treatment ‒ and an unjust law that forbids them to do so. Yet terminating the unviable pregnancy is the only way to hope to save the women’s lives.
We have published this story before ‒ Savita Halappanavar in Ireland at the end of 2012. This is the Catholic Church’s so-called health policy, enshrined in law, which has a lot of pregnant women’s deaths on its hands.
The heroine of this film, Dr. Cerrato, a lifelong Sandinista supporter, a woman from a rural background who was only able to study medicine because of the Sandinista revolution and who still believes in the revolution and what the Sandinistas have accomplished ‒ but who condemns them on this issue. Her belief in the right of her patients to live, to get help in this hospital because the hospital is there to help them, shines out from this film from beginning to end. And she does help them, quietly and with great warmth and understanding ‒ every one of them ‒ a fact which only slowly emerges during the course of the film. But then one case comes up where she is going home for the weekend on the Friday and the young woman who comes in is bleeding, her life is at serious risk, the pregnancy is not viable, and she tells the resident to give the woman misoprostol to induce the pregnancy, but the resident doesn’t do it. The conversation among the medics in the absence of Dr. Cerrato is fraught; they don’t all support doing it, and the resident caves in. On Monday, when Dr. Cerrato arrives for work she learns that the young woman is still bleeding, and she gets so upset she’s sent home for a week with high blood pressure. In the interim, the young woman dies after lying for eight days untreated in her hospital bed.
The film is hard-hitting politically and heartwarming in equal measures in its portrayal both of the doctor and her patients. How long Dr. Cerrato will be able to go on saving these young women’s lives is the unanswered, breath-stopping question that dogs the entire film. No one is in prison in Nicaragua for illegal abortion, as they are in El Salvador, but that’s no guarantee for the future. Whether the hospital will be forced to let her go now that she has become known is perhaps a bigger risk. However, the film ends on a high note, with her reaffirming her commitment to her patients, come what may.
Like the film Al Jazeera made in 2014 about the young, rural poor women in El Salvador in prison accused of illegal abortion and homicide when they had only had miscarriages or stillbirths, this powerful film is important contribution to the continuing struggle to make abortion safe, which will only come about when pregnant women’s health and rights become more important to governments than the misogynistic ideology of the Catholic church hierarchy which condemns them to death. Don’t miss it!!