A Woman’s Brave Journey to Change Abortion Law in El Salvador

Beatriz (the name is an alias to protect her identity) is a 22-year-old pregnant woman from the rural interior of El Salvador who suffers from a series of medical conditions that will likely kill her if she carries her pregnancy to term. Tests have shown that Beatriz’ baby suffers a condition that has kept its brain and skull from developing and is not expected to live long after birth.

El Salvador is one of five countries in Latin America – including Chile, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua – to have a complete ban on all forms of abortion. That includes what doctors consider life-saving medical interventions known as “therapeutic abortions” to save a women’s life from a high-risk pregnancy, or one resulting from rape or incest.

State doctors from El Salvador’s National Maternity Hospital asked the government for special permission to lift the abortion ban for Beatriz, arguing that the law was obstructing their patient’s right to health and life given the strong probability of maternal death. On Wednesday, after two months of deliberations, the Supreme Court rejected the petition and ordered the doctors to continue monitoring Beatriz’s health to provide her with “proper medical treatment” according to “medical science.”

Though it might be the first time some of us hear about the criminal prohibition on therapeutic abortions in El Salvador, it has been on the books since 1998.  However, Beatriz’s story has forced the issue into the realm of public debate and during the past few weeks, women’s groups, medical associations, and international rights groups have argued in favor of therapeutic abortion. Amnesty International has received nearly 155,000 letters of support from around the world.

The debate has divided even the government, with the ministry of health taking a stance in favor of lifting the ban to save Beatriz and the state-run Institute of Legal Medicine (ILM) arguing it should be upheld. What is clear is that the more Salvadorans debate the dilemma, the more they are beginning to realize how invisible the victims of the ban have been over the years. Public opinion in El Salvador is in Beatriz’s favor and a nationwide poll conducted last November suggested that 57 percent of the population is in favor of a therapeutic abortion to save a mother’s life.

International offers to help Beatriz have come in from clinics in the US, Mexico, and Spain. In fact, for some time, Beatriz has had a passport and a letter requesting a humanitarian visa to travel to the US or Mexico, but this 22-year-old woman has decided to stay in El Salvador.  Some say that Beatriz decided to stay home even at a risk to her life to bring attention to the issue of reproductive rights in El Salvador.

On Thursday, in a last minute move, just a day after the Supreme Court ruled that she could not have an abortion despite her lawyers’ appeal that the pregnancy was life threatening, the health minister of El Salvador approved the C-section for Beatriz. The Government appears to finally have given in to international pressure. What is not clear yet is whether this battle will end with a win for reproductive rights in El Salvador or with just a Pyrrhic victory for Beatriz.

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