Women’s reproductive rights, specifically the right to have an abortion, are a highly contentious topic in the whole of Latin America. Despite various legislative advances in recognising women’s rights, aimed at redressing inequalities born from gender discrimination (which vary from country to country), when it comes to a woman’s right to decide as an individual with agency over her own body the legislation of most of Latin America closes the legal and safe access to choice and persecutes those who dare to try to take back control of their own bodies and lives. Even as the outbreaks of the zika virus continue across the continent, most countries highly restrict the access to abortion or even have a total ban on it. El Salvador is one of them.
The draconian abortion law of El Salvador, which bans abortion under any circumstance in 1998, has earned the country a dubious reputation for ruthless criminalisation of women who interrupt their pregnancies and a complete disregard for the value of a woman’s life. Local and international women’s rights groups have worked hand in hand to change this situation, and in the last few years have managed to bring the Salvadoran authorities under international scrutiny, as some of the most dramatic cases have gathered international consternation and support for the cause, whilst opening up the public debate at a national level.
Cases like the one of Beatriz, a young mother whose pregnancy compromised her life and who was denied access to abortion, Manuela, who died in prison for lack of access to medical health, or of the women from the campaign Las 17 y +, sentenced for up to 40 years in prison after suffering from miscarriages or obstetric complications, show clearly the difficulties women face in El Salvador. The work of the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizens Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion), with the support of other groups such as Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Central America Women’s Network, has been key in raising awareness about the need to change this legislation but also change the misogynistic attitudes which blame and condemn women for “crimes” not committed. Trials where these women have not had the right to defend themselves, communicate with their lawyer before, during and/or after the trial, and where there has been a lack of evidence and even misunderstanding of the medical terminology by the jury, have happened alarmingly often.
There have been concrete victories: the liberation of Sonia Tábora, Carmelina, Carmen Guadalupe and María Teresa, after a long fight for the revision of their cases. They have been met with resistance from the conservative right and religious groups, in backlashes that although expected, still cause a chilling effect in those who have just regained their freedom. The latest of these threatening attempts has been a dangerous proposal from Arena – the Nationalist Republican Alliance – on 11 July to change the abortion law in order to increase penalties for women who cause or consent to an abortion, currently from 2 to 8 years (if not considered aggravated murder) to 30 to 50 years in prison, by typifying abortion as aggravated murder with extreme cruelty. The irresponsibility of proposing such a change demonstrates a lack of understanding of the causes that make women opt to terminate their pregnancies, and a disregard for women as individuals worthy of respect for the decisions they take over their own lives. It ignores the harsh reality of pregnancy caused by sexual abuse, of high rates of maternal mortality caused by unsafe abortions, of inconsistent access to contraception, of teenage suicide which accounts for over 50% of maternal mortality in teenagers. It shares the insensitivity of the government’s advice to women simply not to get pregnant in order to deal with the zika virus. We cannot and must not allow such a despicable and atrocious proposal to be passed. We ask you to add your voice against this proposal.
This is a battle for the right to decide. But it is also a battle to end the blaming and shaming of women when they are abused, or when they don’t successfully bear children – even when willingly conceiving. For dignity, for justice and freedom. It is a battle for the recognition of the right of a woman to live.
By Margarita Rebolledo, member of the Central America Women’s Network (CAWN)