After months of contention over El Salvador’s abortion law, one of the strictest in the world, lawmakers in the Central American country are considering whether to allow abortion in cases of rape or risky pregnancy.
The proposal was presented by the governing left-wing Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) and also seeks to legalize abortion in cases when the fetus is so deformed it makes life unviable. According to Reuters, the FMLN has 31 out of 84 votes in Congress and needs 12 more to pass the law.
“It’s a duty of legislators to give women a chance to save their lives, so that they don’t die in those circumstances,” said Congress President Lorena Pena, who backed the proposal. “[The bill] is also meant to take into account the impact giving birth has on girls who have been raped.”
Since 1998, El Salvador has banned abortion under all circumstances and has sentenced women to decades in prison for having the procedure. Some of these women have been falsely convicted and are still serving their sentences for stillbirth or miscarriage. According to the Citizens Association for the Decriminalization of Abortion, there are at least 14 women in El Salvador who have been sentenced to 12 years or more in prison for abortion, and about 130 currently facing legal proceedings.
The law also punishes anyone found to have “provoked, allowed or carried out an abortion” with sentences of two to eight years in prison. Still, according to figures by the World Health Organization, more than 35,000 women obtain clandestine abortions in El Salvador every year.
The law has been hotly contested for years, but debate escalated after the rapid spread of the Zika virus in early 2016. Faced with an unknown mosquito-borne virus that was thought to be causing birth defects, El Salvador joined Colombia and other countries in the region in recommending that women delay pregnancy.
The recommendation has been problematic because contraception is not widely accessible in El Salvador, and almost half of pregnancies in Latin America are unplanned anyway. Fueling the fire, the right-wing opposition party submitted a proposal in July to imprison women for up to 50 years if they terminate a pregnancy – the same as aggravated murder.
Women’s rights groups have widely ridiculed the Salvadoran government for denying abortion to women carrying a child with Zika-related microcephaly and other birth defects, while Amnesty International, the United Nations and other international organizations have asked El Salvador to relax its abortion laws.
El Salvador is one of several Latin American countries – Chile, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic – that ban abortions under any circumstances, but the drastically different proposals presented to El Salvador’s Congress are a mark of deep social divisions in the impoverished country. While relaxing the current abortion law would be a tremendous mark of achievement for women and human rights activists, it remains to be seen whether the FMLN’s proposal will garner sufficient support in Congress to pass the bill.