Criminalizing Reproductive Rights in El Salvador


The loneliness and despair a woman must feel when she cannot turn to her family or local hospitals when her life is at risk makes me too distraught to even imagine feeling that myself. Women throughout Latin America are dealing with this on a daily basis when they experience accidental miscarriages or other similar pregnancy complications.

El Salvador leads in the world’s most extreme abortion ban policies, where women are legally prohibited from performing abortions even in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformities or health complications for the mother.

In El Salvador, abortion laws are a threat to women’s rights and their lives. There, women fear seeking attention in emergency rooms for pregnancy complications because they can be turned over to authorities for allegedly attempting to induce their abortions.

It happened to Manuela back in 2008, a single mother who decided to seek help at the emergency room after losing her fetus from heavy bleeding. Sadly, instead of receiving proper treatment, the hospital staff called the police because she was suspected of aborting the fetus. This led to a 30-year prison sentence for aggravated homicide.

Manuela came from an impoverished background, so she did not have the means to afford an attorney. The state did not provide an attorney for her until the day she was prosecuted; thus, her lawyer was not there to hear her story until after she was found guilty.

Once imprisoned, Manuela was admitted to a hospital to finally acknowledge the reason she turned to the emergency room in the first place. The doctors found that she was suffering from lymphatic cancer, but she never received treatment for it.

For seeking help due to an obstetric emergency, she died handcuffed to a bedpost in 2010, without her family by her side and after being separated from her children since her arrest. Since her death, more than 126 women have been prosecuted for abortion-related causes, half of which have been reported to the police by hospital staff, according to the Agrupácion Ciudadana.

Before the 12-year civil war of 1992, El Salvador’s 1973 Penal Code (Article 169) permitted abortions if the woman had been raped, if her life was at risk, or if the fetus was found to have abnormalities. After the war, however, the Catholic Church and other anti-choice groups used religious dogma and discriminatory stereotypes of women’s sexuality to pass a new penal code in 1998.

Amnesty International found that this new penal code would ban abortions in any circumstance and, if found guilty, women would be sentenced to two to eight years in prison. If any health professionals were accused of having assisted women during the process, they would serve between six to twelve years.

Women’s rights groups challenging this code have an even more difficult time because a few days after the new penal code was implemented, the Legislative Assembly passed an amendment to the El Salvador constitution that would recognize life at the moment of conception.

Currently, 17 women are facing a total of 130 years of prison time for abortion-related “crimes.” This includes women like Alba, 21, who became head of her household when her mother died, leaving her to care for her ill sister and two children alone. She asked her neighbors for help when she began to feel pain and see blood. Alba fainted from the pain, and when she awoke, she found that the neighbors had alerted the police and had accused her of causing the birth complications. Her incarceration left no one to care for her kids and sister.

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