What happens in a country where women have no right to an abortion, regardless of circumstances?
‘A Quiet Inquisition’, shown on the opening night of the Document International Human Rights Film Festival in Glasgow, highlights this question that urgently needs to be addressed. In seven countries in the world, women do not have the right to a safe abortion, even in cases of rape, incest, when the foetus is not viable, or where the woman’s health or even her life is in danger.
The film, directed by Alessandra Zeka and Holen Sabrina Kahn, centres around Dr Carla Cerrato, an obstetrics and gynaecology doctor in Managua, Nicaragua, where there is a blanket ban on abortion. The film explores the harrowing consequences of this law, detailing stories of women and girls, from a pregnant thirteen year old with dangerously low blood pressure coming in with her twenty-four-year old husband, to a teenager who has been raped from the age of seven by her stepfather, resulting in her contracting HIV, who has already had one child aged thirteen, and is expecting another. The powerful implication in the film is that the ban on abortion is taking away a woman’s basic human right to control over her own body, in all senses of the phrase, aligning the removal of a woman’s right to medical care with rape.
Carla explains that as a doctor, she and her colleagues are forced to battle with their consciences on a daily basis, having to make the impossible choice between complying with the law, and safe medical practice. She recounts that she has seen many women die from complications in pregnancy, whose lives she believes could have been saved. The film suggests that the most common cause of this is when doctors are aware that the foetus will not survive outside the womb, but by law they cannot act to prevent or control infection until there is no foetal heartbeat, by which time the woman is at high risk of going into life-threatening septic shock. Carla says that in just one year there have been eighty-eight such cases, but that the records are falsified, attributing the deaths to other causes, because she and her colleagues know that if they blame the law for these deaths, they risk losing their jobs. Carla’s sense of guilt that she has been an unwilling accomplice in so many deaths is painfully clear, and she reveals that there are times she defies the law in order to spare women’s lives.
One particularly heart-wrenching story featured in the film is that of a 27-year-old woman, the sole-carer to her ten-year-old daughter, known to the public as ‘Amalia’, diagnosed with an advanced case of cancer, who was denied treatment for her illness because she was 8-10 weeks pregnant, and aggressive cancer treatment would pose a risk to the foetus. Public outcry, and the case being brought to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights eventually resulted in the authorities allowing her to start a course of chemotherapy, however, this led to her having to endure the trauma of delivering a stillborn baby, and she passed away shortly afterwards.
What makes the situation in Nicaragua more disturbing is that when the complete ban on abortion was imposed in 2006, Daniel Ortega, the current leader, used it as a political card in his presidential campaign to win the support of the Catholic Church. This means that women’s physical and mental health is being endangered, and doctors are put in the terrible position of being prevented from caring for their patients without fear of prosecution, because of Ortega’s political games. This is bitterly ironic given that he led the Nicaraguan Revolution opposing the Somoza dictatorship, which, as Carla points out, was a movement towards improvement of human rights in Nicaragua, and is the reason that she, as a woman, was able to become a doctor.
The film is backed by an oppressive soundtrack of heavy drumbeats and twanging guitar riffs, making the audience uneasy, forcing us to share the fear of the women and girls coming into the hospital. Some are afraid to tell their doctors they have undergone botched backstreet abortions, because doctors are obligated to report abortion attempts to the police. Others are afraid for their lives, because they know that the law means they may not receive adequate medical treatment if there are complications during their pregnancy. There are audible mutters and gasps from the audience throughout the film, at the cruel reality that this law means for women, particularly when we come to understand that to those who passed the law, this breach of human rights is just part of a political strategy.
In our Western society, abortion may be a controversial subject; but whether we agree with the current legal restrictions on abortion or not, we do not question the basic human right of a person to all possible measures to ensure their physical and mental wellbeing. This right must be enforced worldwide, because the harsh, heart-breaking reality is that what happens when women have no right to abortion is that many people endure unimaginable suffering, leading to many unnecessary, entirely avoidable, deaths. ‘A Quiet Inquisition’ is a moving, powerful film, with a clear message against the violation of human rights, the perfect, chilling choice for the opening night of the Document Human Rights Film Festival.
Document is Scotland’s longest standing human rights film festival, dedicated to educating and inspiring conversation, and ultimately change, through film.