Since 1998, abortion is banned in El Salvador, being forbidden under any circumstances. This means that not even when the pregnancy is a result of rape, when there is a serious malformation of the foetus or when the physical or psychological health of the woman is in danger, abortion is permitted.
Under the Salvadoran law, women can face up to eight years in prison for getting an abortion, but in practice, some women are given a sentence as high as thirty years, for the crime of aggravated murder. And this can happen because according to the country’s constitution the foetus is considered a human being under the law, so if the foetus dies due to human action i.e. induced abortion, the person can be accused of murder.
Moreover, according to a 2014 report from Amnesty International most women who are now in prison as a consequence of the harsh abortion law are poor and have a low degree of education. The majority of these women was reported by health care professionals after seeking medical care due to a miscarriage or post abortion complications. Strangely, not even one single woman was reported from a private clinic, where most of these women cannot afford to go. These facts show that the abortion law in El Salvador, despite being for all women, mostly affects socially and economically disadvantaged women.
What is equally worrying about this issue, is that it has been proven that banning abortion doesn’t decrease the number of abortions performed. Instead, it increases the number of women dying for ending pregnancies in illegal and dangerous conditions. For instance, data from CAWN and the UNDP say that the second most common cause of death in El Salvador is from attempts of self-abortion and more than fifty percent of indirect causes of maternal mortality are from self-poisoning. Additionally, these laws pose a major risk for women’s health in the sense they instill terror in women who need emergency reproductive care and do not seek it for fear of being accused of abortion, and consequently being prosecuted and imprisoned.
El Salvador is also known for being a country where machismo is highly present. This macho culture leads to gender-based violence, including rape. If a victim of rape gets pregnant as a consequence of the assault, she can continue the pregnancy or go for an illegal and unsafe abortion. Either way she will suffer from a double victimisation that will only contribute for the detriment of her wellbeing.
In a country where inequality between men and women is striving, the fact of women not being able to control when they have children is also a major obstacle for their personal development. In most cases, girls and women drop out of school and their jobs when they get pregnant, constraining their educational and employment opportunities, which contributes for the perpetuation of their already underprivileged condition.
In an interview for the magazine Wire, the lawyer Dennis Muñoz, known for representing women in El Salvador in similar cases stated:
“This is a witch hunt against poor women. The prosecutors and judges think women have to be heroes even though they might be dying – losing two litres of blood – they have to take care of their newborn, even if they are unconscious. They require a woman to conduct herself in a way that is completely unrealistic”
The case of María is only one example among many. María, after having a stillbirth in the bathroom of her house, passed out and was sent to the hospital by her family. Furthermore, she woke up in the hospital bedroom after surgery, only to find police officers telling her that she had been arrested. And when in prison she didn’t receive the proper medical care she needed. Following the trial she was sentenced to thirty years in prison for aggravated murder. After a successful appeal, she was released, but only after being robbed four years of her life.
Laws that restrict abortion are a direct violation of women’s most basic rights, depriving them from a healthy life, free from violence, torture and cruelty, and that ultimately can lead to the death of women who did nothing more than just trying to take control over their own lives and bodies. Fortunately, NGOs and international bodies like the UN have been active in trying to end legislations such as the ones in El Salvador, but it seems there is still a long way to go until we can say that all women have the full enjoyment of their rights.