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El Salvador: Total ban on abortion is killing women and girls

25th September 2014, 14:25:02 UTC

The Government’s repressive total ban on abortion is destroying the lives of women and girls in El Salvador, pushing them to unsafe, clandestine abortions or forcing them to proceed with life-threatening pregnancies, according to a new report launched today by Amnesty International.

On the brink of death: Violence against women and the abortion ban in El Salvador documents the effects of the country’s restrictive law, which saw 16 women and girls charged with the crime of abortion last year alone – six of these were under 17 years old at the time of the alleged offences.

Those found guilty of having an abortion face a two to eight year sentence, while health care providers who assist them face up to 12 years in prison. In some cases, women who have had natural miscarriages have been imprisoned for aggravated homicide, which can result in a sentence of up to 50 years imprisonment.

Those who are prosecuted tend to be young, single, poorly educated and living in poverty.

Amnesty International also found that despite the ban 19,290 abortions were carried out in El Salvador between 2005 and 2008 – over 25 per cent of these involved girls under the age of 18. The law as it stands is having a devastating impact with 11 per cent of women and girls who underwent a clandestine abortion in El Salvador dying as a result.

Also, suicide accounts for 57 per cent of the deaths of pregnant females aged 10 to 19 in El Salvador. It is likely many more cases have gone unreported.

The report was launched today in San Salvador as part of an Amnesty International mission to El Salvador focusing on the country’s repressive abortion laws and high levels of violence against women. The Amnesty International delegation includes Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director of Amnesty International, and Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.

“The horrific repression that women and girls in El Salvador face is truly shocking and akin to torture. They are denied their fundamental right to make decisions about their own bodies and are severely punished if they dare to do so,” said Salil Shetty.

Speaking from the launch today, Colm O’Gorman said, “Shockingly, El Salvador’s abortion ban extends even to cases where the life of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk. This can mean those too ill to safely carry a pregnancy to term face an impossible choice – trapped between potential jail if they have an abortion or a death sentence if they do nothing.”

Women who are forced to continue with their pregnancy despite serious and even life-threatening health conditions are being denied essential medical care.

A doctor working in a maternal health unit in a public hospital told Amnesty International, “We’re not discussing a medical question, but a purely legal one. We all know what needs to be done, but we go back to the fact that we all have our hands tied by what is written in the law.”

The ban on abortion also applies to children who have been raped. The law forces everyone to carry a pregnancy to term, even though this can have devastating effects, both physically and psychologically.

The repressive anti-abortion laws in El Salvador are indicative of much wider discrimination against women and girls in the country. Gender stereotyping extends even to judicial decision-making with judges sometimes questioning the credibility of women. Discriminatory attitudes towards women and girls also mean access to sex education and contraceptives is near impossible.

“The failure of the Salvadoran Government to address discrimination against women severely restricts the lives of women and girls. Their refusal to properly address the insurmountable barriers to contraception and effective sex education means that generations of young women are at risk of a future shaped by inequality, discrimination, limited choices and restricted freedoms,” said Salil Shetty.

“The world cannot sit idly by and watch women and girls in El Salvador suffer and die. Amnesty International is calling on the Government of El Salvador to decriminalise abortion on all counts. The Government must provide women and girls with access to safe and legal abortion services at least when the pregnancy is a risk to their lives or health, or when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or in cases of fatal foetal impairment,” said Colm O’Gorman.

Additional information:

El Salvador banned abortion in all circumstances in 1998. It is one of seven countries in Latin America where abortion is totally banned by law; Chile, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname. Some of those countries, like Chile, are already taking steps to rectify their laws.

The case of Beatriz, a 22-year-old woman from a rural part of El Salvador, became widely known last year. Beatriz has a history of lupus and other serious medical conditions. She became pregnant but the foetus she was carrying was anencephalic (lacking a large part of the brain and skull), a fatal condition which means it would not survive more than a few hours or days beyond birth. She was denied an abortion even after taking her case to the Supreme Court. On 3 June 2013, after intervention from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and international press attention, the Salvadoran Government finally permitted Beatriz to have an early caesarean section. The newborn died hours later. This case resulted in international concern, and criticism of El Salvador’s abortion law. It is noteworthy that an abortion in such circumstances would be a criminal offence in Ireland too, attracting a sentence of up to 14 years for the woman and doctor involved.

Another example of what is happening is the case of María Teresa Rivera, who is currently serving a 40-year prison sentence after having a miscarriage. María Teresa, who already had a five-year-old child, did not know she had become pregnant again until she was taken ill at the garment factory where she worked. She was found by her mother-in-law, bleeding on the bathroom floor and was rushed to hospital where a member of staff reported her to the police. Police officers arrived and began questioning her without a lawyer present. In July 2012 she was tried and found guilty of aggravated homicide, despite serious flaws in the evidence against her. As it stands, her young son will be 45 years old by the time she is freed.

Colm O’ Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland, is currently on mission in El Salvador where he visited the women’s prison and met with Maria Teresa who has already served over three years of her 40 year sentence. He subsequently met with her mother and son, who is now nine years old, to hear their story. He has also spent time with Beatriz to hear first-hand about her experiences.

The ban on abortion even extends to children who have been raped. A doctor who treated a ten-year-old rape survivor told Amnesty International: “It was a very difficult case … she didn’t understand what was happening to her… She asked us for colouring pencils and it broke all of our hearts. We said: ‘She’s still just a girl, just a little girl.’ She didn’t understand that she was expecting [pregnant].” The girl was forced to continue her pregnancy.

Common methods used by women and girls to terminate a pregnancy include: ingesting rat poison or other pesticides; thrusting knitting needles, pieces of wood and other sharp objects into the cervix; and the use of the ulcer treatment drug misoprostol, which has become widely used to induce abortions.