The Dominican Republic—a predominantly Catholic country in the Caribbean—has had a total abortion ban in effect since 1884. Abortion is criminalized in the country even when a pregnancy is life-threatening, unviable, or the result of rape or incest. Further threatening people’s health and lives is the country’s lack of comprehensive sexuality education and access to non-stigmatizing reproductive health services; the Dominican Republic has the “highest adolescent fertility rate” in all of Latin America. The most momentous project for protecting people’s reproductive rights—as guaranteed by numerous international human rights treaty bodies to which the country is a signatory—was a new Penal Code Reform that would decriminalize abortion in three circumstances. This reform has been debated in the country for more than two decades; however, there has been sustained disagreement over the country’s restrictions on abortion.
The Dominican Chamber of Deputies rejected the proposed changes in late June and instead, further violated people’s human rights by removing a clause in the country’s Criminal Code that previously forbade discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. The 128 deputies of the 148 present, who voted in favor of approving the code without the changes necessary to decriminalize abortion, justified doing so given their belief that abortion should be penalized as more than simply a “minor infraction” while other crimes receive significantly longer sentences.
The women’s rights movement and the LGBTI+ rights movements have been working together in the Dominican Republic to challenge this Penal Code and ensure these rights are protected. In the weeks following the Chamber’s decision to reject the three clauses, supporters of the “Apoyo 3 Causales” (Support 3 Clauses) movement have taken to Twitter and the streets to voice their disapproval. Present at the most recent march on August 5 outside of the Congressional building were both supporters of the 3 Causales movement and members of RD Es de Todes, a queer intersectional collective. Above all, they are calling for the Senate to reject the Penal Code that the Chamber of Deputies passed in order to avoid being “in danger.”
First and foremost, how is it possible that a country can discriminate against its own people and violate their human rights? Still, regardless of the Penal Code’s content, in thinking beyond criminalization, it may be fundamentally unjust for one to exist in the first place. Attempting to broaden protections for human rights through criminalization is perhaps in and of itself a flawed approach because it continues to legitimize the country’s criminal legal system. Relying on criminalization to address rights violations thus may result in more human rights violations in the long run. Should local leaders think beyond criminalization and, if so, how?