Maria, a thirty year old mother of four suffered labour complications in her home and regained consciousness in hospital, awaiting a thirty year prison sentence for aggravated homicide.
This is the harsh reality facing the women and children of El Salvador, a country where miscarrying a child can see a woman facing years in prison.
El Salvador, the most populated country in Central America, known for its huge crime rate, gang warfare and corruption also hides a darker secret. Since April 25th 1997 all abortion was voted illegal, with human life being recognised from the moment of conception.
El Salvador has always had strict laws on abortion. The 1956 penal code only allowed abortion if it could be justified in terms of saving the pregnant woman’s life, which led to large scale practices of illegal abortion and in turn high rates of maternal mortality. This led to the law being expanded to accept abortion if the conception was through rape or if a congenital disorder was detected in the foetus, however due to large pressure from the religious population in El Salvador (it is estimated that 47% are Roman Catholic) and a bill submitted by the Nationalist Republican alliance, abortion was criminalised with no exceptions.
This has led to huge numbers of maternal mortality as women desperately turn to, unsafe and unsanitary abortion methods such as coat hangers, caustic fluids (such as battery acid) and catheters of soapy liquid. It is reported that 11% of those turning to such practices die as result, whilst many more suffer painful and prolonged complications. Furthermore, this issue is also one of class: the wealthy are able to safely terminate their pregnancies in secret by travelling to a country where abortion is not illegal, whilst the poor are left to face the dangerous and often lethal methods described above.
As if this horror was not enough, those who are found practising abortion and sometimes even those who miscarry face lengthy prison sentences. The guardian cites the case of Cristina Quintanilla, an 18 year old woman who suffered a miscarriage seven months into her pregnancy, resulting in a thirty year prison sentence. There have also been cases of girls as young as ten, who have found themselves pregnant after being raped, being forced to continue with their pregnancy.
Amnesty International are currently tackling the outdated and dangerous abortion laws of El Salvador, claiming that they violate women’s and children’s “right to life”. Though calls for the complete legalisation of abortion are unlikely to succeed in El Salvador’s current socio-political climate, Amnesty are calling upon president Sanchez Ceren to allow abortion if it raises a physical or mental health risk to the mother, there is a fatal foetal impairment or the child was conceived through rape or incest. Amnesty hopes that their petition will be the catalyst for change so desperately needed to save the lives of the women in El Salvador.