Conflict & Justice

El Salvador's strict abortion laws a 'form of torture,' say rights groups


Members of feminist organizations demonstrate in favour of abortion outside the Courthouse of San Salvador on May 15, 2013. Feminist organizations are asking the Court to authorize a woman known as Beatriz (pseudonym) to have an abortion in order to preserve her life.


Jose Cabezas

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Rights groups are urging El Salvador’s Supreme Court to authorize an emergency abortion for a 22-year-old mother whose life depends on terminating her pregnancy.

Known to the world by a pseudonym to protect her identity, Beatriz suffers from lupus and kidney disease, ailments which have been aggravated by a five-month-old anencephalic fetus that she has been carrying.

Her doctors have said that the best way for Beatriz to avoid further health problems, and possibly death, is to have an abortion. In a previous caesarian delivery, she gave premature birth to her only son, who is now 14 months old, in a procedure that nearly killed her.

Beatriz and her medical team have appealed to the Supreme Court, requesting that the government allow her to have a therapeutic abortion. Justices concluded hearings for the case last week and said they will issue a ruling within 15 days, but time is precious.

“Every day that goes by, she is even more at risk,” said Sara Garcia, a member of El Salvador’s Group for the Decriminalization of Therapeutic, Ethical and Eugenic Abortions. “This is a form of torture that she is going through.”

Anencephaly is a rare but serious birth defect that usually develops during the first month of pregnancy and causes babies to be born without a portion of their brain or skull, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control.

Almost all babies with anencephaly die shortly after birth and Latin mothers are at an increased risk for contracting the defect for reasons not yet understood, the center says.

El Salvador’s sweeping anti-abortion laws prohibit mothers to terminate at any stage of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape, incest or therapeutic reasons, making the ban one of the most extreme in the world and one of the few that outlaws abortions that would save the mother’s life.

Women face up to eight years of prison in El Salvador for aborting a fetus, according to the country’s penal code. In previous convictions some Salvadoran courts have also tacked on 30 years for first-degree murder.

Doctors who perform abortions also risk imprisonment.

“Denying essential health care when it is necessary to save a woman’s life is cruel, inhumane treatment,” regional director for the Center for Reproductive Rights Monica Arango said in a statement. “Beatriz’s doctors’ diagnosis is clear and the Supreme Court has all the information it needs to act. It is deplorable that the court continues to deliberate while the risks to Beatriz’s life worsen by the day.”

Some 628 Salvadoran women have been locked up for abortion since the nation tightened its anti-abortion laws in 1998. Nearly 60 pregnant women died in El Salvador in 2012, many suffering from exacerbated health problems that could have been avoided with therapeutic abortions, rights groups said.

Activists have marched through the streets of the nation’s capital city of San Salvador, protesting in front of the Supreme Court and carrying signs that say “don’t take away Beatriz’s right to live,” and “it’s time to decriminalize therapeutic and eugenic abortion in order to save women’s lives.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requested in April that El Salvador’s government “adopt the necessary measures to implement the treatment recommended” by Beatriz’s doctors and “aim to protect the life, personal integrity and health” of Beatriz.

President of El Salvador Mauricio Funes, whose five-year term ends next year, has avoided taking a firm stance on abortion in light of Beatriz’s petition, telling local journalists that “we will not exploit this case in order to make it an electoral issue.”

Beatriz’s case before the high court is unprecedented in the small country of roughly six million people.

The magistrates’ decision could influence future legislation in the Central American nation where, like many Latin American countries, the Catholic Church asserts powerful leverage on national policy.

“This case exemplifies the urgent need to launch a national dialogue on abortion legislation in order to consider the introduction of exceptions to its general prohibition,” the United Nations Human Rights office said in a statement. Local groups echoed the cry.

“Reform is long overdue,” Garcia said. “It’s time to stop hiding the truth that there is little commitment to women’s rights in this country. There has been silence and it’s time to break that silence.”