El Salvador: The Battle For Reproductive Rights

If, like me, your knowledge of El Salvador is limited to it being a small country in Central America, you will be forgiven for not knowing much about their stance on women’s reproductive rights. It’s a topic that has been quite easy to miss — unless you are an avid reader of the Americas sections of mainstream press — and is in need of attention.

El Salvador is one of five countries in the world that impose some of the strictest anti-abortion laws, but unlike the other four, is one of the most aggressive in enforcing said laws: under no circumstances are abortions legal, even if the pregnancy poses a risk to the mother or the unborn child. In a country with deeply-rooted Catholic sentiments and a long-standing belief that life begins at conception, the wellbeing of an unborn child is paramount and surpasses the rights and the health of the mother. Women are not afforded the choice in whether they wish to become mothers, and they are ultimately stripped of personal freedom and autonomy over their own bodies. It’s not just the rights and the wishes of the women that are violated, their own health takes a back-seat to that of the foetus. In some of the most extreme cases that have been documented, pregnant women have been denied chemotherapy when doctors discovered they were expecting; by allowing these women to seek the treatment they desperately needed would have entailed the loss of life of the baby. Inevitably, this has led to the loss of life of both mother and unborn child.

But making abortion illegal does not put a stop to it; instead it forces desperate women to undergo back-alley abortions. Local health authorities in El Salvador have estimated that between the years of 2005 and 2008 there have been 19,290 back-alley abortions, with the number only having increased since then. Alternative authorities however, have estimated that the figure is far higher with up to 35,000 abortions a year, some of which have resulted in the death of the mother. This risky procedure not only endangers the lives of the women, but also poses a threat to their safety and their freedom. Should authorities get wind of their supposed crime, women are at risk of facing criminal charges and could face up to eight years imprisonment for murder. Suffering not only violations to their human rights, desperate women who pursue this avenue suffer once more at the hands of the judicial system. Shockingly, it’s not only abortions that are punishable by the state; miscarriages are also deemed punishable and are regarded as aggravated homicide, essentially holding the mother to blame for any complications to the pregnancy (laws state that doctors cannot intervene if there are any complications). Take the case of Maria Teresa. Unaware she was even pregnant, she was admitted to hospital after suffering from stomach cramps and subsequently passing out. It was after medical examinations that she was informed that she suffered a miscarriage, and that she was to be charged with infanticide — for which she was sentenced to 40 years in prison.  Her release this year (after having served 4 and a half years of her 40 year sentence) on the grounds of insufficient evidence, makes her one of the lucky ones.

Women face jail time for a miscarriage © Paul J Richards

However, current legislation towards abortion in El Salvador, whilst draconian, has not always been so strict. Prior to 1997 abortion was legal in cases of rape, incest, where a foetus was injured or if the life of the woman was in danger. But due to increased pressure from right-wing political groups and the Catholic Church, which wields immense power in the country, the law was insidiously changed to allow for a total ban on abortions; stripping women of their reproductive rights and subsequently silencing the voices of protest (quite literally). As in the cases above, the result of the legal change has been catastrophic; and with poor sex education on offer and the lack of access to contraception, the need to seek an abortion has increased.

Small step towards equality © Reuters

Progress to make any changes has also been frustratingly slow; the idea of overruling the complete ban has only very recently entered the minds of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (the left-wing political party who have been in power since 2009). Even then, the decision to discuss overruling existing laws has been the result of lobbying from women’s rights activists, more liberal Anglican Church leaders, and healthcare professionals.

Furthermore, if the FMNLF were to make any changes, it would only be to repeal the total ban on abortion rather than completely legalise it. Whilst these changes are undeniably a step in the right direction to achieving equality, the problem still remains that not everyone is as open to the idea and deep-rooted religious sentiments surrounding abortion still permeate. In fact, the proposed new bill has already been countered by the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance with a call for even stricter punishments of up to 50 years imprisonment. Nevertheless, the decision to openly debate the topic, and the proposal of a new bill, marks a significant step towards highly sought after equality.