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Column: In El Salvador, a total ban on abortion has led to death and decades of imprisonment

In El Salvador, one of only nine countries in the world that has a total ban on abortion, suicide accounts for 57% of all deaths of pregnant girls aged under 19.

Colm O'Gorman Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland

IN NOVEMBER 2011, María Teresa Rivera, a 28-year-old garment factory worker and single mother of a five-year-old son was living in a town just outside San Salvador. Life was already tough for her, living in poverty and trying to raise her child in an area ravaged by violent criminal gangs. But things were about to get an awful lot worse.

She began to feel unwell, and went to the bathroom. She was found bleeding on the bathroom floor by her mother-in-law, and was rushed to hospital. She was having a miscarriage, but she hadn’t known she was pregnant. For most women, a crisis such as this is a health crisis, and a deeply personal issue. But for poor, young women and girls in El Salvador it can often be life-shattering.

El Salvador is one of only nine countries in the world that has a total ban on abortion. It is a country where the Catholic Church holds considerable political and social power. Its influence led to a 1998 constitutional amendment asserting that life begins at the point of conception and the total ban on abortion that followed.

Suicide accounts for 57% of all deaths of pregnant girls aged under 19

It is poor, young, rural women and girls who are most harmed by this law. Middle class and wealthy women travel to access abortion services in private clinics in Mexico or the US. But that’s not an option for those who live in poverty, resulting in an estimated 20,000 clandestine abortions in El Salvador every year. According to the World Health Organisation, 11% of such abortions result in the death of the woman or girl.

El Salvador’s abortion laws are killing poor women and girls. It has amongst the highest levels of teenage pregnancy in the world. Suicide accounts for 57% of all deaths of pregnant girls aged between 10 and 19.

One doctor Amnesty International spoke to detailed how he treated a ten-year-old pregnant rape victim. Termination of her pregnancy wasn’t a legal option, so she was forced to go through with the pregnancy and delivered a baby by caesarean section at 36 weeks.

Sent to prison for 40 years

But perhaps the starkest example of the violently ideological application of that law is the prosecution of poor women and girls who have miscarriages or abortions for murder. When María Teresa arrived at the hospital she was reported to the police by a member of staff. From that moment, her fate was sealed. She was taken from hospital to prison, where she was held until July 2012. She was charged with aggravated homicide, the aggravating factor being that the ‘victim’ was related to her by blood.

She met with her publicly appointed lawyer five minutes before her trial and no proper defence was offered on her behalf. For example, the court dismissed the idea that she didn’t know she was pregnant because, in January 2011, she told a work colleague she thought she might be. A full eleven months before her miscarriage. No-one pointed out to the court that she couldn’t have been pregnant for eleven months.

María Teresa was sent to prison for 40 years because she was poor, marginalised and a woman. And she is not alone. Her experience is typical of many other cases, all involving young, poor and marginalised women and girls.

I visited her in prison last week when I took part in an Amnesty International mission to El Salvador. We were there to launch a report on violence against women and the impact of the total ban on abortion on the human rights and of women and girls.

María Teresa is serving her sentence in a prison that is 900% overcrowded, sleeping on the floor of a dormitory which houses 205 women. She is doing her best to get by, doing what she has always done, even in such appalling conditions. She works to earn some small amount of money to send home to provide for her son by sewing, washing clothes or fetching water for other prisoners.

Families ripped apart by injustice 

I also met with the Salvadoran Government, the President of Congress, Justices of the Supreme Court and other officials. Amnesty International challenged them on the human rights violations suffered by women like María Teresa. All agreed there is a serious problem, but said the problem was beyond their control, pointing to the constitutional issue and the power of those who oppose abortion. It’s as if they expected us to believe they were not the ones in position of ultimate responsibility, and the only ones with the power to effect legal change.

The day after I met María Teresa in prison, I met her son and elderly mother-in-law. They are struggling, left alone to survive without her. María Teresa is not the only victim of this miscarriage of justice.

I also met other women who had been criminalised by El Salvador’s abortion laws. Some who spent years in prison, and whose lives and families – they were all mothers – were ripped apart by such injustice. Together with other women’s human rights defenders they are working against the odds to force a change in the law so that abortion is decriminalised in El Salvador.

Their dignity, courage and determination to ensure that El Salvador reforms its laws in line with its obligations under international human rights law is a bright light in the midst of all that darkness and despair.

Colm O’Gorman is the Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland. He recently took part in an Amnesty International Mission to El Salvador as part of the organisation’s My Body My Rights campaign. While there he met with senior government ministers and Justices of the Supreme Courts, NGOs working on the ground, and victims, survivors and their relatives. 

To support the women and girls of El Salvador click here.

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About the author:

Colm O'Gorman  / Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland

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