MANAGUA, Nicaragua - Two weeks after Olga Reyes danced at her wedding, her bloated and disfigured body was laid to rest in an open coffin - the victim, her husband and some experts say, of Nicaragua's new no-exceptions ban on abortion.
Reyes, a 22-year-old law student, suffered an ectopic pregnancy. The fetus develops outside the uterus, cannot survive, and causes bleeding that endangers the mother.
But doctors seemed afraid to treat her because of the abortion law, said her husband, Agustin Perez. By the time they took action, it was too late.
Nicaragua last year became one of 35 countries that prohibit all abortions, even to save the mother's life, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York. The ban is strictly followed, leaving the country torn between a strong tradition of women's rights and a growing religious conservatism.
Abortion-rights groups have stormed Congress demanding change, but President Daniel Ortega, a former leftist revolutionary and a Roman Catholic, has refused to oppose the church-supported ban.
Evangelical groups and the church say abortion is never needed now because medical advances solve the complications that otherwise might put a pregnant woman's life at risk.
Before the ban
But at least three women have died because of the ban, and 12 other reported cases will be examined, said gynecologist and university researcher Eliette Valladares, who is working with the Pan American Health Organization to analyze deaths of pregnant women recorded by Nicaragua's Health Ministry.
Before the ban took effect Nov. 18, 2006, fewer than a dozen legal abortions were recorded per year in Nicaragua. They were performed only when three doctors agreed a woman's life was in danger.
The Catholic Church estimates that medical staffs carried out about 36,000 "secret" abortions a year, because under the old law they had little fear of government reprisals.
This year the Health Ministry has recorded 84 deaths of pregnant women between January and October, compared with 89 for all of last year and 88 the year before. It listed hemorrhaging as the most common cause, with 27 cases reported. The ministry declined to comment further.
'You must try'
Abortion-rights groups have disrupted Congress several times, demanding that lawmakers lift the ban.
The Catholic Church mobilized 300,000 people to march and sign petitions in support of the ban.
"A child is not a sickness," said Henry Romero, a priest who helped lead the campaign. "When two lives are in danger, you must try to save both the woman and the child. It's difficult to say now that it isn't possible to save both."
Law student Reyes knew something was wrong, and went with her husband to their town's medical center. They were sent to a maternity hospital, more than an hour away in Managua. There, Perez said, Reyes was given a cursory exam, sent home, and told to return the next day.
By that time, the bleeding and cramping were worse. Perez said he rushed her to a hospital in nearby Leon, but after she had an ultrasound that confirmed her condition, they left her bent over and in agony for hours. A doctor at a shift change saw her condition and she was rushed to surgery. She suffered three heart attacks.
Some doctors privately admit to carrying out what they believe are illegal procedures; others say they won't jeopardize their careers.
"Many are thinking that instead of taking the risk, it is better to let a woman die," said Leonel Arguello, president of the Nicaraguan Society of General Medicine.