El Salvador to Pregnant Women: Drop Dead

By Natalie Elliott; photographs by Giles Clarke

El Salvador’s Supreme Court decided late last night not to allow a 22-year-old woman known as “Beatriz” to have an abortion, even though she is at risk of serious injury as a result of the pregnancy—and despite the fact that the fetus has an almost zero chance of survival because of its own health issues.

All abortion is illegal in El Salvador, but Beatriz’s supporters hoped the Supreme Court would make an exception in this case. After deliberating for 15 days, the Salvadoran Supreme Court revealed the fate of Beatriz, the nom de guerre of the five-months-pregnant 22-year-old woman who had been legally appealing for a potentially life-saving “therapeutic abortion.” That’s not to say she’ll die when she gives birth in four months—though it’s a possibility, considering she suffers from lupus, an illness which has given her kidney disease as one of its many side effects, not to mention her fetus is anencephalic, which means that parts of its brain or skull are missing, and it will thus live anywhere from only minutes to mere weeks.

Also hanging in the balance these past two weeks was the question: In this staunchly Catholic country—which has declared all abortion illegal since 1998, even in cases of rape, incest, or maternal mortality—would this young woman win the right to choose for or against an abortion in the name of her own health and safety?


Protestors in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Does El Salvador seem to care about this question? Not really. Not even the current left-leaning president, Mauricio Funes, will offer comment. We tend to believe the US’s zealous abortion lobby is (ahem) out for blood, but they’ve got nothing on the calcified  moralism of El Salvador. In fact, hardly a single conservative pundit in the US has vocally supported the restrictions of the Salvadoran government. But why not?

I reached out to Adam Cassandra, the spokesperson for Human Life International, a strong Catholic pro-life organization in Virginia, with a highly influential affiliate organization, Sí a la Vida ("Yes to Life"), based in El Salvador. He believes that the liberal international media has put such an alarmist spin on the whole Beatriz controversy, that no one, not even a shamelessly pro-life politician, will come out in support of the Salvadoran policies. “In the case of Beatriz... the media ran with a narrative that this young woman is being denied a ‘life-saving abortion’ because of the government’s strong legal protection of unborn life. This narrative persists even after a group of medical experts submitted a report to the Supreme Court that her life is not in any danger from the pregnancy, and that an abortion would not help her chances of survival.”

It’s true that a team of Salvadoran doctors have said in court that Beatriz likely will not die from carrying this pregnancy to term—it’s also a common fact that women with lupus experience far fewer risks in pregnancy than they have historically. This is based on an assumption, however, that those lupus-suffering women have access to non-Third World medical attention, which might include the option to abort should the pregnancy threaten to kill her. In the case of Beatriz, there are also a retinue of doctors from the Salvadoran National Maternity Hospital who are aware of her previous pregnancy complications—preeclampsia, or high blood pressure, also caused by lupus—who have strongly recommended abortion as the most advisable option for her health. The simple fact remains, there would be no Supreme Court case if every medical professional believed she was free and clear.

In El Salvador, over 40 percent of women have their first child before age 20. Since the penal-code measure to ban all abortion procedures was established in 1998, there have been 628 women imprisoned for this offense. The average sentence for a self-induced abortion is two to eight years. Some women have been condemned to sentences as long as 30 years, when the charge becomes “aggravated homicide.” One woman, quite famously, was exonerated after serving eight years, when it was later discovered that she did, in fact, deliver a full-term stillborn infant, and not attempt to terminate it. Another, a mother of two, also sentenced to 30 years, died in prison after only serving a year, because she did not receive adequate treatment for her lymphoma while incarcerated. According to certain human rights groups, around 60 pregnant of Salvadoran women perished throughout 2012 due to health risks that likely could have been avoided through therapeutic abortions. While it’s impossible to accurately tally such a highly illegal activity, in 1998, the first year of the then-new penal code’s enforcement, more than 7,400 women were admitted to Salvadoran hospitals for abortion-related complications. El Salvador has one of the highest maternal-mortality rates in Latin America.

But God bless America, anyway. Because no one, really, besides Human Life International, seems so keen to jump in and support this stricture of the Salvadoran constitution. As Cassandra admits, “Many leading advocates and political figures in the pro-life movement in America are themselves uncomfortable when it comes to defending the pro-life position in the ‘hard cases’ of rape, incest, and life of the mother in the United States, so they are not likely to give these types of international stories much attention.” Even in Texas, where standard abortion procedure now involves a description of the physical attributes of your fetus and a mandatory audience of its heartbeat, providers are not required to do so if you are receiving a late-term abortion for a nonviable baby. Even the most hard-line antiabortion states seem to understand there is some expectation of decency owed to a suffering mother. Oh, but they will make her wait 24 hours. Even if she’s dying. But at least they will eventually help her—for now.

Nobody wants Beatriz to die. And no one, not even in the bleeding-heart-liberal public, should believe that, since the Supreme Court has now denied her an abortion, that it is automatically a death sentence. If all goes well, in four months she'll likely give birth to a very ill child with a life expectancy of about a month. In this specific case, the hysteria shouldn’t be surrounding a conservative government trying to murder a woman, because that's not the biggest issue here. Rather, the concern should be that a conservative government—or any government—has the power to think it over.

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