Abortion bans put lives at risk and women in prison

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 4 June 2013 04:34 GMT

In Latin American countries where abortion is banned, women risk unsafe backstreet procedures. When they suffer miscarriage, they are wrongfully jailed for murder.

(Updates with Beatriz undergoing Caesarian section on Monday and baby dying)

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - El Salvador’s decision to deny an ill woman carrying a malformed foetus an abortion highlights the region’s draconian abortion laws that are putting women’s lives at risk and landing them in jail, a reproductive rights group says.

El Salvador’s Supreme Court ruled last week that a 22-year-old woman known as Beatriz, who has lupus and was pregnant with a foetus missing a large part of its brain and skull, could not have an abortion. On Monday, in her 27th week of pregnancy, she underwent a Caesarean section to save her life and avoid breaking the law. She is in stable condition, but the baby did not survive.

In El Salvador, abortion has been illegal under all circumstances since 1998 - even in cases of rape, incest, a severely deformed foetus or when the woman's life is in danger.

Many women like Beatriz face similar obstacles in a region where abortion is completely banned, with no explicit exceptions written in law made to save the life of a woman in six countries - the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Chile, Honduras, Haiti and Suriname.

“We have found many Beatriz’s in El Salvador and in other countries, especially Nicaragua and Honduras, over the years,” said Lilian Sepulveda, head of the global legal programme at the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.

“Total bans on abortion violate international human rights laws and the right to life and health. When you get total bans on abortion, you find there are more unsafe abortions. When women want an abortion, they will find ways to have an abortion. Liberalising abortion laws is essential to saving the lives of women,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

Despite the region’s tough abortion laws, there has not been a drop in abortion rates.

In fact, they have had the opposite effect.

According to a 2008 study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Guttmacher Institute, Latin America has one of the world’s highest abortion rates, with 31 per 1,000 women of childbearing age, compared to 12 per 1,000 in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds.

According to WHO, botched abortions are a leading cause of maternal death in all parts of the world, accounting for 12 percent of maternal deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean, based on 2008 figures.


El Salvador’s ban has also led to the wrongful imprisonment of hundreds of women falsely convicted of inducing an abortion, when in fact they suffered miscarriages or complications during pregnancy or birth, rights groups say.

“Women who have obstetric complications are immediately suspected of carrying out an abortion. They are treated as criminals,” Sepulveda said.

Under El Salvador’s laws, women who have a self-induced abortion and the people who assist them can be sent to jail for up to eight years. In practice, Sepulveda says, some women end up being prosecuted for aggravated homicide, which carries a prison sentence of up to 30 years.

Since abortion was made illegal in El Salvador in 1998, 628 women have been jailed for having abortions, according to local rights group Citizens for the Decriminalisation of Abortion (CFDA).

In 2010, the case of one Salvadoran, known as Manuela, shows how women end up paying with their lives because of the country’s absolute abortion ban.

Manuela, who suffered from advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was sentenced to 30 years in prison after suffering severe complications giving birth.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, which campaigned on her behalf, doctors treated her as if she had attempted an abortion and immediately called the police. She was shackled to her hospital bed and accused of murder.

Manuela did not receive appropriate medical treatment for lymphoma, the rights group says, and died less than a year after being sent to prison, leaving behind two young children. Her case was put before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2012.


Criminalising abortion also discriminates against poor women, like Beatriz, rights groups say.

“The heart of the Beatriz case is discrimination. Beatriz is poor. Wealthier classes can leave the country to have an abortion,” Esther Major, Central America researcher for rights group Amnesty International told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Wealthier women wanting an abortion can pay private, trained doctors to perform the procedure and can also travel abroad, often to the United States, to have an abortion there.

Poor women do not have such luxury. Instead, they are more likely to undergo dangerous backstreet abortions, which put their lives at risk.


The Roman Catholic Church’s lingering grip on Latin American politics, influence on society and public condemnation of abortion are all factors behind the region’s stringent abortion laws.

“One thing all the countries in Latin America where abortion is banned have in common is a strong presence of the Catholic Church, which is a huge obstacle to protect reproductive rights,” Sepulveda said.

“People in key positions in the judiciary have very conservative opinions, like in Chile. They carry their personal beliefs into their decisions.”

It is likely Latin America’s stringent abortion laws will remain in place, at least in the short term, as there is no big push for abortion to be made legal or decrimnalised in the region.

“It’s status quo at the moment,” Sepulveda said.

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