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When
abortion is
a lifeline

Laws that prohibit access to abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean often end up infringing upon a woman’s basic right to life. Victims are usually the poorest in society, as observed during a recent trip to El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.

By Ana María Rodríguez and Eulimar Núñez

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation and The Women’s Equality Center.

Six countries in the region prohibit abortion in all cases, even when the life of the mother is in danger or when the pregnancy is the result of rape. In 2014, at least 900 women died from unsafe abortions in Latin America and the Caribbean, equal to 10% of maternal deaths. The majority of the victims were poor women. In El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, abortion is criminalized with sentences of up to 30 years in prison.

Six countries in the region prohibit abortion in all cases, even when the life of the mother is in danger or when the pregnancy is the result of rape. In 2014, at least 900 women died from unsafe abortions in Latin America and the Caribbean, equal to 10% of maternal deaths. The majority of the victims were poor women. In El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, abortion is criminalized with sentences of up to 30 years in prison.

Rosa Hernández went before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to demand that the death of her daughter “Esperancita” be investigated, and to ensure that the Dominican government is held responsible for denying her treatment. The case has become emblematic in the country’s fight to change the laws to allow abortion when the life of the mother is in danger.

Rosa Hernández went before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to demand that the death of her daughter “Esperancita” be investigated, and to ensure that the Dominican government is held responsible for denying her treatment. The case has become emblematic in the country’s fight to change the laws to allow abortion when the life of the mother is in danger.

In Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Suriname, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, abortion is prohibited even for an ectopic pregnancy, when a fertilized egg grows outside the uterus. Standard medical practice holds that an ectopic pregnancy must be interrupted as early as possible to save the life of the woman. An obstetric emergency may occur when it is delayed. At 20 years old, Keyla Cáceres nearly died due to an ectopic pregnancy.

In Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Suriname, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, abortion is prohibited even for an ectopic pregnancy, when a fertilized egg grows outside the uterus. Standard medical practice holds that an ectopic pregnancy must be interrupted as early as possible to save the life of the woman. An obstetric emergency may occur when it is delayed. At 20 years old, Keyla Cáceres nearly died due to an ectopic pregnancy.

Ninety-seven percent of women of reproductive age in Latin America and the Caribbean live in countries with restrictive abortion laws. Guaranteeing a woman’s right to life also means the guarantee that she can survive pregnancy, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Ninety-seven percent of women of reproductive age in Latin America and the Caribbean live in countries with restrictive abortion laws. Guaranteeing a woman’s right to life also means the guarantee that she can survive pregnancy, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Women in these countries are also victims of gender-based physical and sexual violence. In the Dominican Republic, more than 60% of women have suffered physical violence, according to UNICEF figures. And one in four women has experienced some type of abuse before age 15. In June 2017 alone, one women was assassinated in El Salvador every 16 hours. That year, a total of 4,343 teens (up to age 17) were sexually abused.

Women in these countries are also victims of gender-based physical and sexual violence. In the Dominican Republic, more than 60% of women have suffered physical violence, according to UNICEF figures. And one in four women has experienced some type of abuse before age 15. In June 2017 alone, one women was assassinated in El Salvador every 16 hours. That year, a total of 4,343 teens (up to age 17) were sexually abused.

Rates of teen pregnancy are high in both countries. In El Salvador, 30% of pregnancies in 2015 occurred in teens between 10 and 19 years old, according to the Ministry of Health. Meanwhile, in the Dominican Republic, 22% of teens between 15 and 19 have been pregnant.

Rates of teen pregnancy are high in both countries. In El Salvador, 30% of pregnancies in 2015 occurred in teens between 10 and 19 years old, according to the Ministry of Health. Meanwhile, in the Dominican Republic, 22% of teens between 15 and 19 have been pregnant.

Poverty and lack of sexual education are the leading causes of teen pregnancy. Teens also face greater health risks during pregnancy. Adolescents are three times more likely to face obstruction in childbirth, hemorrhage or infection than women aged 18 to 34 years.

Poverty and lack of sexual education are the leading causes of teen pregnancy. Teens also face greater health risks during pregnancy. Adolescents are three times more likely to face obstruction in childbirth, hemorrhage or infection than women aged 18 to 34 years.

In the last two decades, dozens of women have been sentenced to prison in El Salvador for what they say were miscarriages and obstetric emergencies. Prosecutors accuse them of killing their babies, even when they were born dead or died shortly after childbirth. Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was charged with aggravated homicide and sentenced to 30 years in prison after she lost her baby at nine months. Teodora spent 10 years and 7 months in jail. She was released in February 2018, after her sentence was commuted.

In the last two decades, dozens of women have been sentenced to prison in El Salvador for what they say were miscarriages and obstetric emergencies. Prosecutors accuse them of killing their babies, even when they were born dead or died shortly after childbirth. Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was charged with aggravated homicide and sentenced to 30 years in prison after she lost her baby at nine months. Teodora spent 10 years and 7 months in jail. She was released in February 2018, after her sentence was commuted.

Until 1998, abortion was legal in El Salvador when the life of the mother was in danger, when the pregnancy was the result of rape or when the fetus had no chance of survival. That year, the Legislative Assembly completely prohibited abortion, with the backing of the Catholic Church. Critics of the harsh laws say this leads to obstetric complications and avoidable deaths, but also results in long and unfair prison terms. Twenty years later, the country is currently debating whether to decriminalize abortion in the cases mentioned above, as well as when the victim is a girl or teen who has suffered abuse.

Until 1998, abortion was legal in El Salvador when the life of the mother was in danger, when the pregnancy was the result of rape or when the fetus had no chance of survival. That year, the Legislative Assembly completely prohibited abortion, with the backing of the Catholic Church. Critics of the harsh laws say this leads to obstetric complications and avoidable deaths, but also results in long and unfair prison terms. Twenty years later, the country is currently debating whether to decriminalize abortion in the cases mentioned above, as well as when the victim is a girl or teen who has suffered abuse.

The Dominican Republic’s Penal Code, which criminalizes abortion in all circumstances, dates back to 1884. It doesn’t just punish women; it also punishes - with penalties of up to 20 years in prison - anyone who helps with the procedure, including a doctor, nurse or pharmacist. Two presidents have asked Congress to decriminalize abortion in three circumstances: when the pregnancy puts the woman’s life at risk, when the fetus is not viable or when the pregnancy is a product of rape or incest. They have not been successful. However, civil society’s support for the reform continues to grow.

The Dominican Republic’s Penal Code, which criminalizes abortion in all circumstances, dates back to 1884. It doesn’t just punish women; it also punishes - with penalties of up to 20 years in prison - anyone who helps with the procedure, including a doctor, nurse or pharmacist. Two presidents have asked Congress to decriminalize abortion in three circumstances: when the pregnancy puts the woman’s life at risk, when the fetus is not viable or when the pregnancy is a product of rape or incest. They have not been successful. However, civil society’s support for the reform continues to grow.

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation and The Women’s Equality Center.

PROJECT: Univision Noticias. Published on July 13, 2018

PRE-PRODUCTION, CINEMATOGRAPHY AND EDITING: Ana María Rodríguez

ADDITIONAL CAMERA: Eulimar Núñez

PRODUCTION: Eulimar Núñez & Ana María Rodríguez

TEXT, EDITING, PHOTOS: Eulimar Núñez

TEODORA STORY: Andrea Patiño Contreras, Jessica Weiss & Jessica Ávalos.

WEB DEVELOPING AND DESIGN: Ramón Torres & Juanje Gómez

ANIMATION: Mauricio Rodríguez-Pons

GENERAL EDITING: Maye Primera & Almudena Toral

ENGLISH TRANSLATION: Jessica Weiss

Special thanks: Julia Gavarrete, Antonio Cucho & Olivia Liendo.

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