Easing Abortion Restrictions Could Save Lives in El Salvador

Women bring their products for sale to a local market on the outskirts of San Salvador, El Salvador. © 2001 Alfredo L. Fort, Courtesy of Photoshare

Women bring their products for sale to a local market on the outskirts of San Salvador. © 2001 Alfredo L. Fort, Courtesy of Photoshare

El Salvador has one of the strictest abortion laws in the world. It is one of only six nations that enforces a blanket ban on abortion without exceptions—including in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the woman.

Women in El Salvador can face up to 50 years in prison if they are suspected of having an abortion, often times including women who have had miscarriages.  Some women are imprisoned for seeking out medical attention after having an unsafe abortion. Even women who have late-term pregnancy or unsafe abortion complications are hesitant to seek out medical attention in fear of being accused of inducing an abortion. Under the country’s current law, if a man raped a teenage girl and she sought out an abortion, he would serve only six to ten years. She would serve 30 to 50.

The strict abortion laws have created a health and human rights crisis in the country. Women are continuously and unjustly criminalized for seeking out reproductive health services. Women like Cristina Quintanilla who experienced complications during her second pregnancy that resulted in a miscarriage. After being taken to the hospital to be treated for her miscarriage, she was arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide.

Every year, an estimated 35,000 women in El Salvador risk their lives with unsafe abortions due to the harsh penalizations for abortion. El Salvador’s maternal mortality rate is higher than the regional average, and at least 13% of these deaths are caused by unsafe abortion. These deaths are preventable and unacceptable.

This problem extends far beyond El Salvador’s borders. Globally, 22 million women risk their lives with unsafe abortions, and 47,000 die from complications every year. Even of those who survive, many suffer long-term health complications. Draconian abortion laws like those in El Salvador unjustly criminalize women and perpetuate the stigma, contributing to the unnecessary deaths of women around the world.

Hope for the women

Activists in El Salvador and around Latin America have been fighting for increased access to safe abortion and at this moment—partly due to the risks associated with Zika Virus—there seems to be some hope for change.

After 18 years of the stringent laws, El Salvador is seeking to relax the country’s restrictions to allow for abortions in cases of rape or risky pregnancy. El Salvador is taking a step towards breaking the barriers to women’s reproductive freedom. Women would still lack unrestricted access to abortion, but if passed, this reform bill would permit legal abortion for women in the most vulnerable circumstances and save the lives of women throughout the country.

While this may be a small step for El Salvador, it’s a crucial one. This proposal to loosen restrictions suggests that the country is moving towards prioritizing the reproductive rights and health of women throughout the country. Countries need to continue investing reproductive healthcare and ensuring greater access to safe abortion to provide for women and girls around the world.

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