Woman denied life-saving abortion at center of storm in El Salvador

Women protesting the plight of Beatriz, San Salvador

Women protesting the plight of Beatriz, San Salvador
Women protesting the plight of Beatriz, San Salvador
Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto Terapéutico

All most of us know is that a woman named Beatriz, a 22-year old mother of one, is critically ill in a San Salvador hospital with kidney failure, an auto-immune disorder and at the center of a growing controversy.

Beatriz is also five months pregnant with an anencephalic fetus, a fatal malformation where the brain and skull of the fetus are largely missing.

Doctors say the baby will almost certainly be born dead and with all of these factors Beatriz must abort the fetus to save her life. But Beatriz’ chance for survival is illegal in this tiny and very Catholic country.

“We hope that the Supreme Court treats this case with the urgency it merits, given that Beatriz’s life and health are at risk,” said Esther Major, Amnesty International’s expert on Central America. “She is suffering cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in being denied the medical intervention she so urgently needs.

To be a poor woman with an unwanted pregnancy in El Salvador is to be at the convergence of misfortune. Abortion has been entirely illegal in El Salvador, without exception, since 1998. Such bans do not result in fewer abortions, of course, just more clandestine and unsafe procedures.

Because it is such a deeply closeted issue, accurate abortion statistics for El Salvador are difficult to come by. However, in 2008, the Guttmacher Institute estimated that 95% of the 4.4 million abortions occurring in Latin America were unsafe. Unsafe abortion remains a leading cause of maternal death and injury worldwide, although it is the only entirely preventable cause.

Sparked by the activism of Salvadoran rights groups like Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto Terapéutico, Ético y Eugénesico (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Therapeutic, Ethical and Eugenic Abortion), Beatriz’s case has garnered widespread attention and support from national and international groups.

Today, a glimmer of hope appeared. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a global rights body of the Organization of American States (OAS), has granted measures requested by advocates recommending that El Salvador provide Beatriz immediate pregnancy termination to save her life.

This is only the second time in the history of the IACHR that they have granted such measures to ensure abortion access. The first groundbreaking such ruling came in 2010 when IACHR recommended that Nicaragua allow a 27-year old woman battling cancer to receive a therapeutic abortion to save her life. Nicaragua, like El Salvador and Chile, restricts abortion entirely.

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An affirmative decision on Beatriz’s case further demonstrates that, unequivocally, reproductive rights are human rights and underscores the continued need for rights advocates’ vigilance on the world’s most draconian abortion laws, from North Dakota to Nicaragua.

While IACHR’s response is hugely significant, Beatriz’s life ultimately depends on a decision from the Salvadoran Supreme Court.

Monica Roa
Monica Roa

Abortion is not only restricted in majority-Catholic country, but highly stigmatized. National media on the issue has been overwhelmingly anti-choice says Monica Roa, a Colombian women’s human rights defender and Programs Director for the Spanish group Women’s Link Worldwide. Anti-choice activists have also been harassing Beatriz at her hospital, according to advocates on the ground, who have stationed themselves for around-the-clock support.

Beatriz’s situation has sparked major controversy nationally and internationally. While the Salvadoran Ministry of Health and National Commission of Bioethics have both expressed public support for termination, the Salvadoran Attorney General has publicly threatened penalization to anyone considering helping her: 50 years in jail for Beatriz and 12 for the provider under El Salvador’s severe abortion law.

A national petition putting pressure on El Salvador’s President and Supreme Court to recognize Beatriz’s right to life and grant her an abortion immediately is urgently pending, and has found support from a wide range of national and international humanitarian and rights groups, as well as United Nations representatives.

On Friday, the Court asked for a full mental and physical health examination of Beatriz, a clear stall tactic, says Roa.

“The Salvadoran Supreme Court must not shirk its responsibility to protect the autonomy of its citizens and must call on the government to allow access to fundamental reproductive health services,” said Mónica Arango, Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights

IACHR’s positive ruling on Beatriz’s case will be a game-changer. While the recommendation does not oblige El Salvador to grant Beatriz termination, it would be surprising for the government to flout it completely. It also creates a “cover” for the President to publicly support her access, and for the Courts to officially grant it, without having to stick their neck out politically on the abortion issue, suggests Roa.

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President Funes’ personal politics on abortion are unclear, but he is situated within a largely (and vociferously) anti-choice government and media environment.

“[IACHR ruling] makes it easier for him, because [the abortion]wouldn’t be his decision,” Roa says. The upswell in international media and humanitarian support for Beatriz may also help bolster a positive response from Funes and the Courts, who face vociferous adversaries nationally.

What remains a central point for rights advocates is the essence of time, and the life hanging in the balance. “If something happens to Beatriz before the Supreme Court has made a decision, it’s going to be on their hands,” said Roa. For now, it is sill a waiting game. The president and courts must now respond to the measure and publicly make their decision about whether Beatriz will live or die.

In the meantime, it is worthwhile to consider: if Beatriz were a wealthier woman, would she be embroiled in such misfortune to begin with? If she were wealthy enough to have a passport and funds to travel, might she have gone to Guatemala or Mexico and had a safe procedure in a clean, private clinic?

What about preventing this unwanted pregnancy to begin with? If Beatriz were a wealthier woman, would she have been able to access better contraceptive services following her first pregnancy, riddled with complications? Would she have been given long-acting contraception or perhaps had it explained that a subsequent pregnancy would mean fatality for herself and her fetus? “Access is an issue regardless of the law,” says Roa. Simply put, “women with resources can access safe abortion whenever they like. Women without resources cannot.

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About Author

Jessica Mack

Jessica Mack is a writer, blogger and global gender consultant specializing in women's issues, reproductive health and human rights. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Ms. Magazine, and Foreign Policy in Focus and she was formerly a senior editor for Gender Across Borders. Currently based in Bangkok, Thailand, you can contact her at jessmack[at]gmail.com or follow Jess on Twitter at @fleetwoodjmack