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Latin America

Time is running out for El Salvador to decriminalize abortion in extreme situations

Restrictive laws do not prevent women from having abortions. Instead, they promote clandestine and unsafe actions that harm the poorest, because if they do not die, they go to jail. The eyes are on the Central American country this Thursday while the Legislative Assembly is in session.
26 Abr 2018 – 04:00 PM EDT
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It is a critical moment: El Salvador has a real chance to reform its restrictive anti-abortion laws imposed in 1998 and modify its Criminal Code to include exceptions or grounds that allow the procedure when a mother is in danger of dying and in other extreme circumstances, such as when the woman has been raped or when the fetus has no chance of surviving outside the womb.

But the possibilities are diminishing daily. The current legislative period (2015-2018) ends on April 30. On May 1 a new Assembly will be seated dominated by conservative parties that have made it clear that they are totally opposed to decriminalization and will not even bring it up for discussion. That despite research showing that restricting access to abortion does not reduce the number of procedures performed. Rather, abortions continue to occur but in a clandestine manner. All of this is a context of very high levels of sexual abuse, little access to contraceptive methods and a lack of sex education.

Who suffers? Women and, in many cases, poor girls who do not have the resources to, for example, procure a safe procedure after being abused. In the words of Salvadoran gynecologist Victoria Ramírez: "The economic difference between women is what defines whether or not they have the right to life."

Not likely

In recent days, the president of the Legislative Assembly, Guillermo Gallegos, wrote in his Twitter account that he would not vote on the issue, ignoring the United Nations' request in recent days to start a dialogue to reform the harsh legislation, which has led to at least 20 women imprisoned for having lost their babies after suffering obstetric emergencies.

"It is essential that women be guaranteed the right to life and their reproductive health," said the resident coordinator of the UN in El Salvador, Christian Salazar. In his opinion, women "should not face risks or be persecuted or criminalized."

The Salvadoran Congress has studied decriminalizing abortion since October 2016, when Deputy Lorena Peña of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) presented a bill proposing to reform Article 133-A of the current Penal Code, with the objective of allowing procedures in four extreme situations:

1. When the life and health of the woman is in danger.
2. When the fetus has no chance of surviving outside the uterus.
3. When the pregnancy is the product of rape.
4. When the pregnancy is the product of rape, incest or trafficking of girls and adolescents.

Then the issue stalled and in August 2017 a conservative member of the Arena Party, Johnny Wright Sol, surprisingly revived the issue with another proposal to allow the procedure in two extreme causes:

1. When the life of the mother is in danger.
2. When a minor has suffered a violation.

This new proposal sought to create alliances between both sides of the political spectrum. But in an interview granted April 25 to El Faro, Wright said that the deputies who committed to vote for the reform did not want to pay a political cost by casting their votes prior to the legislative elections last March. According to him, in 2018 it will no longer be possible to get the 43 votes needed to reach a simple majority in the 84-member legislative body.

If they do not die from a hemorrhage, they go to jail

The World Health Organization recommends that countries - especially developing ones - guarantee access to comprehensive sexuality education, a wide range of contraceptives (including emergency contraception), family planning counseling and access to legal and risk-free abortions. El Salvador does not fulfil any of these conditions.

The absolute criminalization in El Salvador prevents therapeutic procedures from being performed, even in cases of ectopic pregnancy, when the fertilized ovum is implanted outside the uterus, almost always in the fallopian. In the last five years, at least 13 women have died because they have not received the care they needed.

Article 133 of the Salvadoran Penal Code also establishes a penalty of two to eight years for aborting in any circumstance, not only the woman but whoever helps her. However, prosecutors and judges typify cases of abortion or even the loss of the baby as "aggravated homicide", a crime punishable by 30 to 50 years in prison.

That was the case of Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, who in February of this year left prison after serving 10 years and seven months of a 30-year sentence, and Maira Verónica Figueroa, who had already served 15 years of her long sentence when she was released at the beginning of March. The sentences of both were commuted by the justice of the country, although they were never declared innocent.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, spoke in favor of the reform in a letter he sent to the Salvadoran parliament on April 6. "The reform of the criminal law on abortion is an urgent measure for El Salvador to comply with its human rights obligations," he wrote.

"The approval of these reforms would allow women to have more opportunities to live," wrote Joaquin Castro, a Democratic representative from the State of Texas, in an opinion article published on The Hill. "This is a real opportunity to reform the laws of the abortion in the country. That would help improve the human rights situation, attack a public health crisis and prevent the unjust imprisonment of Salvadoran women. No woman should go to prison for losing her babies. "

Laws and beliefs against science

Both the position of the parliamentary majority and that of the medical union have been influenced by religious dogma. The Catholic Church of El Salvador spoke in recent days against the legalization of abortion in the country and asked Congress not to reform the law to decriminalize it. "We ask all our deputies, from all parties, not to legalize such a serious crime," said the archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar.

Medical associations in El Salvador have insisted on opposing the safe procedure being allowed at least in extreme cases. The Medical College of El Salvador has demanded that the current law not be modified and that the punishment of abortion with imprisonment be maintained. The Association of Pediatrics said in a recent statement that "with the decriminalization (of abortion), what happens is that it is no longer considered a crime, it leaves open the way for life to be manipulated and banalized in the future."

However, gynecologists who day after day treat obstetric complications caused by unsafe abortions confirm that restrictive laws do not prevent abortions but do cause complications that can be fatal for women.

For human rights defenders such as Morena Herrera, the cost to women's lives and health is very high. "We need a debate to decriminalize the quieter abortion, based on scientific arguments and realities," she says.

"Today the deputies have the historic opportunity to change a very unjust law that falls fundamentally on the backs and lives of girls, adolescents and poor women."

This story was reported with the support of the International Women's Media Foundation and the Women's Equality Center.

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RELACIONADOS:Latin AmericaAbortosEl Salvador