Conflict & Justice

El Salvador Supreme Court denies woman's appeal for life-saving abortion

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — El Salvador’s Supreme Court shot down an appeal by a 22-year-old mother to terminate a pregnancy that has exacerbated her declining health and threatens her life, a decision that has drawn criticism from lawyers and rights groups.

Known by a pseudonym to protect her identity, Beatriz suffers from lupus and kidney disease, ailments which have been aggravated by a 26-week-old anencephalic fetus which she has been carrying and that will likely die shortly after birth.

Her doctors said after her 13th week of pregnancy that the best way for Beatriz to avoid further health problems, and possibly death, is to have a therapeutic abortion.

But the Supreme Court ruled this week that medics at the public maternity hospital attending to Beatriz have already complied with all medical standards, given sufficient treatment and that abortion cannot be allowed.

“The court considers that…officials have provided adequate medical attention, stabilizing her health condition and controlling her lupus,” judges said in the decision.

“The rights of the mother cannot take precedence over those of the unborn child nor vice-versa; In compliance with article one of the Constitution – which protects human life from the moment of conception – an impediment exists to authorizing abortion.”

Beatriz’s lawyers filed the appeal with the high court in April when she was 18 weeks pregnant. They criticized the ruling.

“This decision has revealed the cruelty that exists toward women in El Salvador and the complete lack of regulation and constant judicial uncertainty in cases like Beatriz,” attorney Denis Munoz told GlobalPost. “This ruling discriminates against poor women.”

El Salvador’s sweeping anti-abortion laws prohibit mothers from terminating 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.

More from GlobalPost: El Salvador's strict abortion laws a 'form of torture,' say rights groups

Women face up to eight years of prison 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 risk imprisonment of up to 10 years.

The inflexible laws and this week’s Supreme Court ruling have spurred outcry from international rights groups that have long urged the Central American nation to reform its strict anti-abortion statutes.

“This complete prohibition is in contradiction to international human rights standards,” Amnesty International said in a statement, calling the court’s decision “a possible death sentence” for Beatriz.

The Inter-American Human Rights Court ordered the government of El Salvador on Wednesday to “urgently guarantee all necessary measures for Beatriz’s medical team and “adopt, without interference, the opportune and convenient medical measures to assure due protection of the sacred rights” to life.

Beatriz’s lawyers said that she could undergo a caesarian section to remove the unviable fetus in an operation that would not be considered an abortion under international law.

In a previous caesarian delivery, Beatriz gave premature birth to her only son, who is now 14 months old, in a procedure that nearly killed her.

But strict readings of national law and severe penalties doled out in earlier cases have scared doctors away from any practice that could be viewed as an abortion by the authorities, attorneys said.

Some 628 Salvadoran women have been imprisoned 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.

Rights groups have fought for years to ease legislation in El Salvador where the Catholic Church wields powerful leverage on national policy. Many had hoped a Supreme Court ruling in favor of Beatriz would help set a long-awaited legal precedent.

"There is a double standard in this country," women's rights activist Ima Guirola told GlobalPost. "Policymakers say one thing to the Catholic Church and another to the public. We are lacking clear, decisive responses to a whole series of issues, including rape, sexual harassment and therapeutic abortion."