MANAGUA, Nicaragua, Oct 27 (Reuters) Proposals to ban abortions for rape victims and women who risk dying in childbirth have sparked a fierce debate in Nicaragua just days before a tense presidential election.
Under pressure from the powerful Roman Catholic church, lawmakers could vote on the draft bill despite pleas from medical associations, women's groups and senior UN officials to reconsider.
The law could mean jail sentences of 20 years for women -- and their doctors -- who terminate a dangerous pregnancy to save their own life.
The proposals are being pushed by the ruling Liberal Party, and left-wing Sandinistas are expected to go along with them to avoid alienating the country's influential Catholic priests and religious voters ahead of the tight November 5 election.
Hundreds of people protested outside the National Assembly in the capital Managua on Wednesday night, saying the law is a death sentence for the some 400 women who suffer ectopic pregnancies in Nicaragua each year.
''They are forcing women and girls to die. They are not pro-life, they are pro-death,'' said protester Xiomara Luna.
Sandinista leader and former Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega is ahead in polls and hopes to win in the first round.
When he led Nicaragua in the 1980s and fought a civil war against US-backed Contra rebels, Ortega's government reinforced a law giving women the right to terminate pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, or if three doctors stated her life was at risk.
Many Sandinistas firmly oppose the new abortion proposals, but Ortega has refused to be drawn on his position and has pushed a vague pro-life message on the campaign trail.
The Catholic church says allowing abortion in certain cases is an ''aberration'', and has rallied thousands to marches in favor of the change, which would put Nicaragua alongside nations like Chile and El Salvador in imposing a blanket ban.
''Murder is murder, and even more so when it is against an innocent who can't say ''Don't kill me'', who can't say anything from inside the mother's womb,'' conservative lawmaker Delia Arellano said.
Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the influential former archbishop of Managua, recently urged voters to back those candidates ''who look after life, who defend life from conception''.
But doctors have come out against the law in droves, noting that most of the world allows abortions in extreme cases where the mother's life is at risk.
''Getting rid of therapeutic abortions will make the parties involved responsible for the death of women and the physical and mental handicap of children,'' medical associations wrote in an open letter to one newspaper.
Senior United Nations officials in Nicaragua and the ambassadors of several European nations have urged Nicaragua's legislators to think carefully before voting on the law.
Calls for a ban on abortions in all cases became stronger after a major debate in 2003 around the case of a 9-year-old rape victim whose pregnancy was aborted.
Reuters DKS VP0432