In many parts of the world, getting an abortion is a criminal act. In El Salvador, the ban on the procedure is so extreme that even women who miscarry their pregnancies may face life in prison for homicide.
Last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry received a letter from 55 members of Congress asking him to address the human rights violations of women in El Salvador. Due to the country's draconian law, countless women have been sentenced to prison—some for decades—including some who simply suffered obstetric emergencies, such as miscarriages or stillbirths.
"They are being persecuted for not having perfect pregnancies or having perfect babies, which is absolutely outrageous," said Paula Avila-Guillen, an advocacy advisor at the Center for Reproductive Rights, in a phone interview. "It's one of the greatest human rights violations that we have seen in the region."
They are being persecuted for not having perfect pregnancies or having perfect babies, which is absolutely outrageous.
The congressional letter delivered to Secretary Kerry focuses on the cases of "Las 17," which refers to several women in El Salvador who were wrongly accused of having an abortion and later convicted for homicide. Now, members of Congress are calling for Kerry to address these human rights concerns with President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador and to reexamine the cases of the imprisoned women.
Ever since the El Salvadorian government criminalized abortion in all circumstances—including in cases of rape, incest and medical emergencies—countless women have been sentenced to up to 40 years in prison. Currently, the Center for Reproductive Rights is working to lift the regressive ban and ask for a re-examination of the cases for many of these women; however, "trying to prove that a woman didn't do anything wrong to terminate her pregnancy is extremely difficult, and in most circumstances the women are poor, they didn't have access to education, they didn't have access to maternal healthcare to begin with, so they are already in a vulnerable situation," said Avila-Guillen.
The congressional letter gives an example of "Manuela," a 33-year-old mother of two who was convicted of aggravated homicide and sentenced to 30 years in prison after she experienced an obstetric emergency. Manuela only met her public defenders the day of her hearing, without the opportunity to speak in her own defense and without the right to appeal the decision. Manuela died in prison in 2010. According to Avila-Guillen, there are many other women who, like Manuela, are shackled after arriving at the hospital seeking emergency help. Many of whom do not even know what they have been accused of.
El Salvador has failed international human rights obligations to ensure reproductive health and rights for dozens of women like Manuela with its regressive ban. In November, 12 other nations denounced these human rights violations, and members of Congress now look to Kerry to ensure that the United States plays an active role in pushing the El Salvadorian government to re-examine the cases of these women.