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Making El Salvador's abortion law more punitive would compound injustice
A conservative political party in El Salvador wants jail terms for women accused of having abortions increased to up to 50 years. The dangerous proposed amendment to the country’s penal code, discussions on which begin in Congress on Thursday, would also increase sanctions and jail times for healthcare providers and others accused of “promoting” abortion services.
Since 1998, abortion has been illegal in El Salvador, even when pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or puts the woman’s life at risk. Despite the ban, the Salvadoran health ministry’s information, monitoring and evaluation unit estimates that more than 19,000 clandestine abortions took place, a figure widely regarded as unreliably low. Adolescents comprise nearly a third of this number, further compromising their health and wellbeing in a region with some of the highest unplanned pregnancy and sexual assault rates.
Under the country’s “guilty until proven innocent approach”, women are serving criminal sentences for legal offences linked to abortion, fostering an environment of fear and despair among women and health providers. Local groups estimate that, to date, 17 women have been imprisoned as a result of seeking unsafe abortions and treatment for obstetric emergencies such as miscarriage or stillbirth.
In El Salvador, one of a handful of countries where abortion is completely illegal, women and girls’ lives are on the line daily.
The proposal to increase sentences for women who have had abortions is not only an egregious human rights violation, but also flies in the face of evidence showing that restricting access to abortion does not reduce the number of terminations. World Health Organisation research has shown that rates of unsafe abortion are likely to increase unless women are provided with access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, including contraception and safe legal abortion. The UN special rapporteur on violence against women has identified the complete ban on abortion as a direct contributor to the country’s high maternal mortality rates.
Restrictive laws and the threat of criminal sentences deter service providers from giving women who experience obstetric or post-abortion emergencies the care and treatment they need. Consider the case of María Teresa Rivera. When Rivera went into early labour and began bleeding heavily one night, her family called an ambulance. The next day, she was taken to jail. Her “crime” was to have a miscarriage. She was recently freed after serving four years in prison. Where will women with few options and limited access to services turn?
The proposed law change comes at a time when the government has asked women to avoid getting pregnant for two years in light of the rapid spread of the Zika virus. Women are in a life-threatening catch-22 situation.
But the issue is not only a matter of reproductive rights and public health. In a region with staggering levels of inequality, young, poor, indigenous women are particularly likely to resort to unsafe abortion. The proposed legal change would only exacerbate this injustice and stall efforts to amplify social justice and accelerate national development.
Parliamentarians are playing a dangerous game. Banning abortion in all circumstances is deplorable; proposing increased jail terms for women who seek an abortion, or those who provide medical support, is simply shameful and irresponsible. Thwarting the proposed change will require strong leadership. Global human rights bodies, and women everywhere, will be watching.
This article originally appeared online in The Guardian here.