El Salvador: Total ban on abortion is killing women and girls and condemning others to decades behind bars

The government’s repressive and outdated total ban on abortion is blighting the lives of women and girls in El Salvador, pushing them to unsafe, clandestine abortions or forcing them through dangerous pregnancies, Amnesty International said today. Those terminating their pregnancies could face years in prison. 

Amnesty International’s recent report, On the brink of death: Violence against women and the abortion ban in El Salvador, charts how the country’s restrictive law results in the deaths of hundreds of women and girls who seek clandestine abortions. The criminalization of the practice has also resulted in those suspected of undertaking an abortion facing long prison sentences.  

“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, Secretary General of Amnesty International, who launched the report in San Salvador today.

“Shockingly, the ban extends even to cases where the life of the pregnant woman is at risk, meaning 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.” 

The country’s restrictive laws mean women and girls found guilty of having an abortion face between two to eight years in jail. 

Amnesty International’s report documents how in some cases women who had natural miscarriages found themselves prosecuted and jailed for decades. Under homicide laws, they face a potential sentence of up to 50 years in prison.

That was the case for María Teresa Rivera who is currently serving a 40-year prison sentence after having a miscarriage. 

María Teresa Rivera, who already had a five-year-old child, did not know she had fallen 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. Her young son will be 45 years old by the time she is freed. 

María Teresa Rivera is one of scores of women imprisoned on pregnancy-related grounds, including abortion and miscarriage. Some of the women have already served more than 10 years in prison. She, like most of the women in Amnesty International’s report, comes from the poorest sector of society.

The ban on abortion even extends 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.  

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.  

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 means access to sex education and contraceptives are 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, health, or when the pregnancy is a result of rape or in cases of severe foetal impairment.”

Additional information:

El Salvador is one of seven countries in Latin America where abortion is totally banned by law; Chile, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Surinam. 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 mean 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. 

El Salvador: After Beatriz, no more women must suffer discrimination and torture https://www.amnesty.org/en/news/el-salvador-beatriz-update-2013-06-04