A Mother’s Right to Life: An Analysis of the Strict Ban on Abortion in El Salvador

While it might be true that citizens of El Salvador no longer face the brutal atrocities of state-sanctioned violence in the form of death squads, the government is still waging a war against El Salvador’s lower class women and girls through systematic violence and negligence. The injustice that has lead to one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, is Article 169 of the Penal Code which bans abortions in any and all cases of pregnancy.

In 1973, Article 169 of the Penal Code permitted abortion in situations that required the procedure to save the mother’s life, such as malformed fetuses, and in cases of rape-related pregnancies. However, in 1992 legislators began drafting a new Penal Code after the Peace Accords following the Civil War were signed. Although the initial draft of Article 169 permitted therapeutic abortions within limits, the Catholic Church saw an opportunity to step in and criminalize abortion with the help of church-funded lobbyists, and conservative groups like The Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA).  The final draft of the ban on abortion was passed in 1997 and is still in effect today, criminalizing any woman who receives, seeks, or aids an abortion, regardless of rape, incest, malformed fetus, or any other endangerment to the woman’s life.

Salvadoran women march to free "Las 17,"

Salvadoran women march to free “Las 17,”

A woman found guilty of having a clandestine abortion can be sentenced anywhere from 2-8 years, while anyone who is caught assisting the termination of a woman’s pregnancy can be sentenced anywhere between 6-12 years via Article 135 of the Penal Code. Due to these sentences, women refuse to seek post-abortion medical attention which frequently puts the woman or girl’s life at risk; even if they were to seek professional medical help, doctors and nurses are legally bound to refuse them service at risk of their own imprisonment. The highest prison sentence is reserved for women who birth a stillborn child, or have a miscarriage which can result in a woman’s imprisonment for 30-50 years on the grounds of aggravated homicide.

Although the lack of women’s reproductive rights in El Salvador has been a persistent problem in the last forty years, it took the internationally recognized case of Beatriz in 2013 to make the rest of the world to recognize this as an atrocious, intersectional human rights issue. Beatriz (pseudonym), a 22-year old peasant woman whose pregnancy in combination with her medical history of lupus and kidney disease threatened her life. Four months into her pregnancy, doctors discovered that because of Beatriz’s poor health, her fetus was anencephalic, meaning that a significant part of the fetus’s brain and skull were missing; it would be impossible for the fetus to survive more than five minutes after birth. Although the medical professionals treating her at San Salvador’s National Specialized Maternity Hospital agreed that she needed a therapeutic abortion to save her life, they were forced to appeal to the Supreme Court in order to ensure the safety of Beatriz as well as the doctors and nurses working on her case. The Court received the case as a medical emergency that should be reviewed as soon as possible, but took six days just to agree to hear the case. Frustrated by the Court’s indecision and stalling, Beatriz and her supporters sought the aid of regional human rights groups such as Morena Herrera’s La Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto Terapéutico, Ético y Eugenésico (ACDATEE) which lead to a human rights campaign on her behalf, in addition to the Feminist Collective and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) who then transferred the case of the Inter-American Commision on Human Rights (IACHR). These groups pressured the Salvadorian government to provide Beatriz with the necessary medical procedures, which attracted the attention and support of UN experts. The case of Beatriz became worldwide, resulting in hundreds of thousands of letters received by the Salvadoran government, as well as activists petitioning outside of the Salvadoran embassies in Latin America and Europe.

In addition to Beatriz, the rest of the world was shown seventeen new faces that represent women’s rights abuses in El Salvador in the case of “Las 17,” which brought attention to another critical aspect of the ban on abortion: female incarceration, especially in regards to the government’s refusals to grant low-income women the right to a fair trial and thorough investigation. “Las 17” are a group of seventeen rural women incarcerated (many of whom were charged for abortion services and miscarriages). Herrera’s lawyers at the ACDATEE have stepped in to defend these women, and issued a pardon for them in April 2014. Amnesty International suggests that the social and cultural attitudes surrounding rural women and girls in El Salvador significantly impacts the way the Criminal Justice System handles the cases of these women.

International Ad run to bring Beatriz's case to light.

International Ad run to bring Beatriz’s case to light.

Women and girls are not only socially exiled if they suffer a miscarriage, stillbirth, or have an abortion, but young girls are especially stigmatized from seeking any kind of preventative protection like condoms. Their access to contraception is limited to the discretion of their parents who must either be present at the time of their visit to the health clinic, or they must have written consent. In regards to adolescent pregnancy, girls face intense shaming which often leads them to drop out of school and withdraw socially. Girls are consistently told that it is their fault for getting pregnant, and it is their fault if their fetus does not survive. This attitude blames women and girls for simply existing in a society is dominated by cultural norms of female submission and exploitation. Sadly, this has led to an extremely high rate of adolescent suicides, comprising “57% of the death of pregnant females aged 10-19” (Amnesty International).

To continue reading the full dossier, click here: A Mother’s Right to Life An Analysis of El Salvador’s Strict Abortion Ban Dossier

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