In El Salvador, abortion is illegal under all circumstances, even when a woman’s life is at risk. This draconian law received international attention last year when a woman, known as “Beatriz,” who suffered from lupus and kidney failure, was obligated to carry her pregnancy to term, despite the fact her life was at risk and the fetus was considered unviable. At 27 weeks of pregnancy, as her health continued to decline while the Supreme Court deliberated the case, she was eventually granted a caesarean to save her life; the baby died within hours of being delivered.
This was not always the case in El Salvador. Until 1997, abortion was permitted in three cases: when the woman’s life is in danger, when the fetus is not viable outside the uterus, or in cases of rape or incest. However, as the part of the penal code reform in 1998, a penalty of two- to eight years was introduced for anyone found guilty of procuring or performing an abortion. This absolute ban on abortion is also vaguely worded, basically allowing women to be prosecuted for a pregnancy lost under any circumstance, including miscarriage.
To add insult to injury, a constitutional amendment passed in 1999 states that life begins at conception, thereby allowing prosecutors to convert abortion charges to aggravated homicide charges, which carry a 30-50 year prison sentence. By prioritizing the rights of a fetus over the rights of the woman, this amendment has had devastating consequences for women seeking emergency medical attention for obstetric complications. In some countries, similar harsh penalties are on the books but rarely enforced. This is not the case, however, in El Salvador, which has the highest rates of prosecutions in Central America of women accused of carrying out abortions. Between 2000 and June 2011, 129 women were prosecuted for abortion-related crimes; 49 were convicted, some receiving sentences as long as 30 years.
Feminist organizations, including our colleagues at La Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion), have launched a campaign petitioning the Salvadoran government to pardon 17 women.
Agrupación and other activists point out that there are startling similarities in these 17 cases. All of these women were young and poor, and having experienced a miscarriage or obstetric complication went to a public hospital where they were accused of having tried to abort with total disregard of any presumption of innocence. These women received inadequate legal defense and were sentenced without any substantial evidence that they purposefully terminated or sought to terminate their pregnancies. Despite this complete lack of due process, all 17 of these women were convicted of abortion-related crimes, and are serving sentences ranging from 12 to 40 years.
A video spot with the women can be seen here:
On April 1, Agrupación filed documents with the Salvadoran National Legislature to petition the government to grant the pardons, the first time such an appeal has been made for a reproductive rights issue in El Salvador. At the same time, activists have taken their demands online, with the social media campaign #unaflorporlas17 (“a flower for the 17”). The pardon must be reviewed and approved by each branch of government, beginning with Congress, then the Supreme Court, and finally the Executive branch. The process was expected to be complete by July 1. However, although the initial steps have been taken, the request has stalled with Congress.
Agrupación has recently faced a backlash by the conservative movement in El Salvador who have attacked the campaign and even published the full names of the 17 women and accused them of murder. Despite this, the Campaign continues to attract support globally. In August, Amnesty International has also released a press release in support of the campaign, urging El Salvador to consider the pardons and comply with human rights standards going forward to ensure that women do not continue to be imprisoned for miscarriages.
Activists told us that although the immediate goal is to free the 17 women, they also hope the campaign will ignite public support to challenge the absolute ban on abortion, which is extremely dangerous, as it prioritizes the rights of the fetus over the rights of women. In El Salvador, women’s lives are not only put at risk due to the ban, but the ban violates women’s human rights, including the right to liberty, bodily integrity, and also the right to a fair trial, legal counsel, and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Photo: Agrupación Ciudadana