WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS: THE LEGALIZATION OF ABORTION IN EL SALVADOR

by Breanny Andrade
Contributing Writer

Like many other countries in Latin America in the early 1990s, El Salvador had a ban on abortion with a few exceptions including cases of rape, serious fetal malformation, and great risk to the mother’s life. In 1995, Pope John Paul II appointed Fernando Sáenz Lacalle as the new archbishop to San Salvador. He was a member of the conservative Catholic Group Opus Dei, who like the right-wing conservative party–Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA)–and the Catholic Church, opposed abortion. As explained by writer Jack Hitt, “What he brought to the country’s anti-abortion movement was a new determination to turn that opposition into state legislation and a belief that the church should play a public role in the process.”

In 1997, with the support of the liberal party–the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN)–left-wing feminists demanded the decriminalization of all types of abortions in legislation. They recognized other women-related issues such as death by a preventable, pregnancy-related causes and gender inequality as reasons to fight for safe abortions. The right-wing party and the Catholic Church responded by creating an amendment that declared all types of circumstances illegal, including the previous conditions- cases of rape, serious fetal malformation and great risk to the mother’s life. The new amendment passed and set a precedent that stated abortion as murder. The new language of the law found women guilty of attempted or aggravated homicide of a newborn and changed all previous charges from abortion to aggravated homicide. “Women found guilty of aggravated homicide of their newborns face 5 times greater than the minimum prison sentence for abortion and faced two to three times longer than the prison sentences of gang members who were charged for multiple violent murders.” This legislation also includes the consequences a woman must face if she suffers from a miscarriage or premature birth that leads to death. The law in El Salvador punishes women who have suffered the loss of the child due to natural complications. Victims are convicted of serious offenses such as homicide and sentenced to long prison terms on weak or inconclusive evidence.

Today, the women of El Salvador’s human rights are being violated due to Article 133 of the Penal Code of their constitution. It details El Salvador’s total ban on abortions and its consequences. This article declares that the prime directive of government is to protect life from the point of conception and onwards. The penal code identifies the legality of “Crimes Against the Life of Human Beings in the First Stages of Development.” The consequences according to the penal code include the prosecution of the abortion provider (whether they are a medical doctor or a back-alley practitioner) who can face 6  to 12 years in prison and incur the loss of any medical license, the woman receiving the abortion, who can face 2 to 8 years in prison and any other accomplice who helped plan an abortion can get 2 to 5 years in prison. In total, “One hundred and twenty-nine women were charged with abortion-related crimes, 49 were convicted, and 26 are serving prison terms – all with convictions for homicide.”.

In 2015, Minister of Health Dr. Violeta Menjívar reported, “1,445 girls aged 10 to 14 became pregnant, causing high-risk pregnancies, between 2011 and 2015, 13 women died from ectopic pregnancies, in which the embryo develops outside the uterus with no possibility of survival. And 36 women died when their chronic illnesses that were worsened by pregnancy.” Medical staff is not able to administer important medical treatments that are banned, increasing maternal mortality in El Salvador. Dr. Guillermo Ortiz Avendaño, who led the unit overseeing high-risk pregnancies at the National Women’s Hospital in San Salvador says, “patients whose lives are at risk are waiting until their condition is critical to be able to intervene, the ban prevents doctors from offering swift treatment at early stages.” Dr. Victoria Ramirez, a gynecologist in El Salvador states, “When a woman is pregnant, she loses all her rights because the baby has more rights than she has.”  

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the illegal status of abortion does not reduce the number of induced abortions happening. The report highlights how women will seek abortion regardless of their legal status and authorized availability. Women and girls will often turn to extreme and dangerous measures to terminate their pregnancy. The Amnesty International 2014 reports reads, “common methods to abort fetuses illegally include, ingesting rat poison or other pesticides and thrusting knitting needles, pieces of wood, and other sharp objects into the cervix, and the use of the ulcer treatment drug misoprostol, which has become widely used to induce abortions.”. Many of these methods lead to health complications that go ignored and unreported due to the fear of being prosecuted if health physicians report findings to authorities.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein have all called on El Salvador to repeal its total ban and pass a law to decriminalize abortion under minimum and limited circumstances. The experts pointed out that the total ban on termination of pregnancy currently in force in El Salvador runs contrary to international human rights standards and violates the country’s international obligations.

This movement towards promoting women’s rights in El Salvador must remain strong in order to change attitudes on abortion.  Pressure for change from within the state, along with the help of international organizations can pressure for new legislation. Women shouldn’t suffer due to extreme legislation that limits their reproductive rights due to the interconnection with church and state. At the minimum, women whose pregnancy are a result of rape or incest, or put the pregnant woman at risk should be allowed to have access to safe and legal abortion. Any legalization should also include the decriminalization and release of women convicted of pregnancy-related crimes. In order to prevent future generations from the same inequality, legislation should be passed to lift the ban on abortion as a whole, giving all women and girls access to safe and legal abortions. This would lower the number of maternal deaths, eliminate the recurrence of dangerous life-threatening procedures and decriminalize women’s rights.

Women in one country shouldn’t be treated like criminals for a right another woman has elsewhere. People all over the world must unite in order to promote change for the women and girls of El Salvador, because women’s rights are human rights.

Photo by:
Marc Nozell

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