The risks of being poor and pregnant in El Salvador
El Salvador outlaws abortion for any reason. There are no exceptions for rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother. Moreover, El Salvador arrests and imprisons women who have abortions, sometime charging them with murder and sending them to prison for thirty years.
In a male dominated country with a highly flawed judicial system, tragedy follows. Consider the case of Sonia Tábora as described on the blog of the Europena Pro-Choice Network:
Sonia was born in Sacacoyo, a village where 40 per cent of the population live in poverty. She experienced injustice at 18 when the man who had raped her was acquitted. And Sonia also had to survive a common experience for poor women in Central America of being abandoned by her partner after becoming pregnant.
Sonia hid her pregnancy from her employers for fear of losing her job as a maid. In February 2005, during a visit to her hometown when she was seven months pregnant, she unexpectedly gave birth without help in a coffee plantation. Sonia’s sister and father found her bleeding, in shock and speechless, and took her to hospital. But a doctor there reported her to police, assuming she had provoked the abortion. Sonia was later accused of aggravated homicide and sentenced to 30 years in jail.
The coalition of groups that campaigned for Sonia’s freedom believed her trial violated legal procedures. They challenged the verdict that she had caused the abortion, which was based on a single doctor’s word, despite lack of evidence or a post-mortem on the fetus....
The Sonsonate court in El Salvador’s eastern region has recognised its mistake, following a review of Sonia’s case. The review was secured by the coordinated efforts of tens of Salvadoran civil society organisations, led by the Citizens Group for the Decriminalization of Therapeutic, Ethical and Eugenic Abortion. These organisations labelled the judiciary’s mistake “state violence”....(You can read a longer version of Sonia's story in Spanish from ContraPunto here).
A report from the Central American Women's Network released last week details the status of maternal and reproductive health in El Salvador.
El Salvador’s stringent anti-abortion legislation has imprisoned 628 women since a law was enacted in 1998. Twenty-four of these women were indicted for “aggravated murder”, after an abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth. Morena Herrera, president of CFDA maintain the majority of women who have been charged are extremely vulnerable for being poor, young and with low levels of education.The Guardian wrote about the Sonia Tabora case this week and concluded:
Lack of access to reproductive healthcare also affects women's ability to participate on an equal basis with men in public life. It has a particularly detrimental impact on access to work and education, perpetuating socio-economic and educational disadvantage, increasing gender inequalities and feminising poverty: it shapes a society which is inherently unfair and unequal.
It is accepted that the criminalisation of abortion does not stop abortions taking place; it leads to unsafe, illegal abortions, which may take place in unsanitary conditions, often result in complications and death, and are one of the main causes of maternal mortality in countries where abortion is banned. The criminalisation of abortion translates as this: some lives are more equal than others.The Center for Reproductive Rights along with a Salvadoran NGO has filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of another Salvadoran woman, "Manuela", who was sentenced to 30 years in prison after suffering severe complications while giving birth. The organizations are arguing that El Salvador's absolute criminalization of abortion violates basic concepts of human rights.
Changing the law will not be enough. Increased sexual education, access to contraception, improved maternal health services and improved economic options for poor women are all necessary to safeguard women and their right to control their bodies.