El Salvador’s total ban on abortion: the facts

How can having a miscarriage or still-birth be a crime?

Women who suffer miscarriages, still-births or other pregnancy-related complications in El Salvador are routinely suspected of having an ‘abortion’, which is banned in all circumstances. They are often subsequently charged with ‘homicide’ or ‘aggravated homicide’. 

What is the law on abortion?

El Salvador has one of the most draconian abortion laws in the world which does not meet international human rights obligations. Abortion is illegal in all circumstances, even in cases of rape, incest, when a woman’s life or health is at risk, or in cases of severe and fatal foetal impairment. It’s also a criminal offence for anyone to help a woman or girl have an abortion.

What are the penalties?

Penalties are severe, ranging from two to eight years in custody for both women and those who help them, and with longer sentences of six to 12 years for health professionals. In the most extreme cases, women have been incarcerated on charges of aggravated homicide, which carries a penalty of up 50 years in prison. A local organization is currently working on the cases of at least 18 women serving prison sentences due to pregnancy-related complications. Some of these women have already served more than 10 years in prison, and most have been sentenced to 30 years or more.

Do women still have abortions?

Despite the ban, clandestine abortions are common. According to the Ministry of Health, there were 19,290 abortions in El Salvador between 2005 and 2008, though the figure is likely to be much higher. Common methods used by women and girls to terminate a pregnancy include: ingesting rat poison and other pesticides; thrusting knitting needles, pieces of wood and other sharp objects into the cervix; or taking a drug used to treat stomach ulcers.

What impact has this had?

The total ban on abortion is killing women and girls. In 2011, the WHO indicated that 11% of women and girls who sought an illegal abortion in El Salvador died as a result. Many women are afraid to seek medical assistance when they experience pregnancy-related complications, leading inevitably to more preventable deaths.

What do people in El Salvador think about abortion?

A newspaper poll in 2013 revealed 74% of people polled in El Salvador favoured abortion when a woman’s life is at risk.

Has there been any progress?

In January 2015, Carmen Guadalupe Vasquez Aldana, who was 18 years old when she was sentenced to 30 years after having a miscarriage, was finally granted a pardon after serving seven years in prison.