In The Community
On May 9th, 2022, a Salvadoran woman identified only as Esme was sentenced to 30 years in prison after she suffered a miscarriage. Esme had been under pre-trial detention for almost two years. She was first arrested and reported to law enforcement by hospital employees for seeking help at a public hospital. Esme was also separated from her seven-year-old daughter when she was arrested.
The reason why this happened is the stuff of nightmares.
Despite numerous demonstrations and efforts led by El Salvador's feminist groups, the nation still upholds some of the strictest abortion laws globally. For 25 years, El Salvador has prohibited abortion under all conditions, with no exceptions. Additionally, it's been almost the same amount of time since the country's legislators enacted a constitutional amendment stating that life starts at conception. Under Salvadorian law, even situations involving rape, incest, or threats to the mother's health do not permit a legal abortion.
Esme's case is not an isolated incident: women have been going to prison for suffering miscarriages for decades in the country. Between 2000 and 2004, there were at least 49 women serving sentences for "crimes" related to abortion. Abortion is referred to as aggravated homicide when these women are tried. The penalties range from 20 to 50 years, healthcare workers such as doctors, nurses, etc. can also be charged for being complicit and sentenced to up to 12 years. For these reasons, many healthcare professionals turn to denounce these women as soon as they show up at a hospital with signs of a miscarriage.
Lower-income women find themselves the most vulnerable to these laws, as it’s often extremely difficult to access medical care. In 2016, another woman named Evelyn was also sentenced to 30 years in prison after suffering a miscarriage while sitting down on her toilet, despite not even knowing she was pregnant. After years of suffering, she was only released in 2020 when various international human rights organizations exerted pressure on the current government to free her.
Despite these challenges, opposition to anti-abortion laws continue to grow. Feminist collectives in El Salvador presented a proposal that would modify the penal code to allow abortions when the mother's health is at risk, in cases of rape or cases of fetal malformation in 2016 - the proposal was archived in 2021 by the legislative assembly. Despite constant pressure for change from many, including international human rights organizations, these human rights violations continue to be ignored.
Morena Herrera, president of The Citizens' Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, has called for miscarriages to be treated as a public health issue rather than a criminal one. Herrera has described Esme's sentence as a heavy blow in advancing women's rights in the country. Herrera also stated, "We will continue to fight so that all women unjustly criminalized by these circumstances regain their freedom and have the opportunity to remake and rebuild their lives."
International human rights lawyer and executive director of the Women's Equality Center Paula Guillen warned that we might see in increase in cases like these now that in the U.S. Roe vs. Wade was overturned. Guillen said, "Everyone in the U.S. should have their eyes on El Salvador to understand exactly what a future without Roe entails."
In the wake of monumental shifts in reproductive rights, both the United States and El Salvador stand at pivotal moments in their respective histories. While America still grapples with the ramifications of the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, El Salvador remains in the international spotlight for its stringent abortion laws.
The U.S., post the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, has seen states emboldened to form individual abortion regulations. Amidst these changes, a central battle is shaping up around medication abortions. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's 2023 rule change, permitting major pharmacies to provide abortion pills, has only added fuel to the fire. Yet, even as some U.S. states grapple with this intricate web of abortion complexities, El Salvador's situation offers a stark contrast.
El Salvador's iron-clad stance against abortion, evident in the heart-wrenching case of Beatriz, attracted international attention and condemnation. Despite the grave risks associated with her pregnancy, Beatriz was denied an abortion, a decision that propelled her case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The court ruled against her, a verdict that not only impacted El Salvador, but also set a concerning precedent for the broader Latin American and Caribbean regions. Beatriz underwent an emergency C-section and the anencephalic fetus died five hours later.
In a country where even natural miscarriages or stillbirths can lead to criminal charges, the grim state of reproductive rights casts a long shadow that is well on its way to reaching the U.S.
It's telling that while some Latin American nations, including Uruguay, Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia, have made strides toward recognizing and guaranteeing abortion services as a human right, El Salvador lags behind. Its unyielding anti-abortion laws, in the face of personal tragedies and international recommendations, paint a grim picture of reproductive rights violations.
As the U.S. confronts its evolving stance on abortion, it's crucial to reflect upon the plight of women in places like El Salvador, where even the most desperate medical circumstances can lead to legal prosecution. The challenges faced by women in both nations, though varied in degree, are intrinsically tied to a broader global discourse on reproductive rights. The contrasting trajectories of these two nations serve as a powerful reminder that the fight for women's reproductive rights, autonomy, and health remains a pressing issue, demanding global attention and action.
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