In 1998, El Salvador amended its penal code to make abortion a criminal offense — with no exceptions for rape, incest, and fatal abnormalities in the fetus or danger to the mother’s life. The next year an amendment that declared that life began at conception was also passed, with strong support from the Catholic Church. As a result, El Salvador now has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Latin America — and the negative consequences of the total criminalization of abortion are too obvious to ignore.
Women who have abortions can face up to eight years in prison. Even worse, women who suffered miscarriages — already an emotionally and physically traumatic experience for a pregnant woman — have been charged with aggravated homicide, which carries a sentence of up to 50 years in prison.
Between 2000 and 2011, 129 Salvadoran women were charged with abortion-related crimes. Of those, 49 were convicted: 23 were convicted of abortion and the rest received different degrees of homicide. According to an extensive report by the Center for Reproductive Rights, the women on trial for abortion routinely have other rights denied, including the right to due process — through practices like preventive detention and inadequate access to legal representation — and the right to privacy.
As many reproductive justice activists have pointed out before, criminalizing abortion does little to curb the abortion rate — instead, it only reduces the number of safe procedures. Between 2005 and 2008, more than 19,000 abortions were performed in El Salvador — and that’s just the data available on record.
The stringent laws make it impossible to know the exact number of abortion procedures undertaken in the country, but one thing is certain: 100 percent of these abortions are illegal, which means a large percentage of them are unsafe. Some of the methods women and girls use to induce abortion include ingesting pesticides, inserting sharp objects into the cervix and using misoprostol, an ulcer treatment drug. All of these options are dangerous and can even be fatal.
Unsafe abortions account for 21 percent of global maternal deaths, and El Salvador has one of the highest maternal fatalities in the Latin American region. The complications that arise from dangerous abortions often require medical attention, but, out of fear of being prosecuted or reported to the police, many women who desperately need post-abortion care choose not to seek medical help.
The no-exception clause of the abortion law places an even greater burden on women and girls who have been victims of sexual violence. In 2013, the National Civil Police reported 1,346 victims of rape. Of those victims, almost two-thirds were under the age of 15 or declared, “mentally incapacitated.” If any of those victims had become pregnant as a result of their rape and wanted to terminate the pregnancy, she would have to go to great lengths and run the risk of being re-victimized by the very court system that is allegedly supposed to help protect her.
See also: “I had an abortion and I’m at peace”
While some women do manage to find a way to access the procedure, other women make an even more drastic choice to escape from the lose-lose situation in which they find themselves. The third most common cause of maternal death in El Salvador is suicide, with 57 percent of deaths among pregnant women and girls aged 10-19 attributed to suicide. Perhaps it is the stigma that comes with being an unwed mother or having an abortion — or the fear of being sent to prison for taking ownership over their own bodies — that causes these women to resort to such tragic measures.
The total ban on abortion has lead to suicide, death and imprisonment of women, turning the situation into a human rights crisis. Following the example of other countries that have liberalized abortion laws would do a world of good in El Salvador, where women — particularly young and poor women — continue to suffer the disproportionate consequences imposed by this harsh and draconian law.