Why El Salvador's Total Ban on Abortion Could Finally Change This Week

Members of various brotherhoods participate in the Los Cristos Procession as part of Holy Week celebrations in Izalco, El Salvador, April 13. Jose Cabezas/Reuters

For the past 19 years, having a miscarriage could land you a jail term in El Salvador.

That could soon change after the country's government debates a landmark piece of legislation on Monday that seeks to decriminalize abortion in certain cases.

El Salvador has one of the strictest abortion laws in the world, and the procedure has been illegal in all circumstances since 1998. In many cases, women arrive at a hospital with heavy bleeding, obstetric emergencies or miscarriages and are presumed to have had an abortion. They've been arrested and imprisoned as a result. While the prison sentence for an abortion in El Salvador is two to eight years, there are currently 17 women in prison serving up to 40 years for homicide. All were initially charged with abortion, and later had their charges increased.

"This is a historic moment because we've been working for 20 years to lift this ban," says Sara García, advocacy coordinator at Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizens Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion). A group from the United Nations Committee on the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) recently visited the country and called on the government to legalize abortion and stop detaining women for abortion-related offenses.

In fact, the situation for women in the Central American country is so bad that in an unprecedented case earlier this month, Maria Teresa Rivera, a woman previously jailed for four years after having a miscarriage in El Salvador, was granted asylum in Sweden with her 11-year-old son.

Related: Changes weighed for Ireland's harsh abortion law

'Violates a person's right'

The law up for debate on Monday was introduced last October and would reform article 133 of El Salvador's penal code. If passed, it would decriminalize abortion in four cases: to save the life or preserve the health of a pregnant woman; if the pregnancy is a result of sexual violence from human trafficking; if there's a fetal abnormality; and if the pregnancy is the result of the rape and abuse of a minor, as long as the minor has the consent of parents or legal guardian to go ahead with the procedure.

"We've been working in coordination with social organizations and women's and youth organizations to push this forward," Garcia says, through a translator. "This next Monday, the commission has an opportunity to stop the injustice against women that this law has caused in El Salvador."

On Monday, April 24, the bill could be discussed, voted on and advanced to the assembly, or outright rejected and archived. At the same time, a separate bill introduced by the Nationalist Republican Alliance, the right-wing party in El Salvador, seeks to officially equate abortion with homicide and increase the penalty to match: 30 to 50 years in prison.

"We have a lot of hope about the outcome of the commission [on Monday]," says Garcia. "We are very hopeful that the debate will be based in women's rights and that it's not a polarized debate that's reduced to two extreme sides, that it's a debate that's serious, scientific and secular."

Some authorities in El Salvador agree that now is the time for change. In a recent forum on pregnancy and maternal health hosted by the country's Ministry of Health, Dr. Violeta Menjivar, the minister of health, said: "The absolute penalty on abortion is causing problems in the health of pregnant women."

Despite the 19-year ban, nearly 250,000 abortions took place in El Salvador from 1995 to 2000, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. More than 11 percent of them resulted in the death of the pregnant woman. According to the country's Ministry of Health, 36 pregnant women died from 2011 to 2015 after being admitted to the hospital with pregnancy complications and chronic diseases and were unable to terminate.

The abortion ban also has affected young girls who have fallen pregnant after being raped, often by family members. A 2014 Reuters report found that three out of eight maternal deaths in El Salvador are the result of suicide of pregnant girls under the age of 19, and girls aged 10 to 19 make up one-third of pregnancies in the country.

"The law just completely violates a person's right, at least under international law. The law really endangers their life by either forcing people to carry dangerous pregnancies to term; forcing people to choose; and forcing people to seek, with that lack of choice, unsafe and clandestine abortions that can result in medical complications," Kaitlyn Denzler, women's rights campaigner at Amnesty International USA, tells Newsweek. "If there are complications, people are afraid to seek medical help for fear that they will be reported and arrested for violating the abortion ban."

She adds: "There's a real climate of fear and then a chilling effect that happens."

Some advocates say El Salvador—which has similarly restrictive and life-endangering laws to Ireland, Poland, Chile, Malta, the Vatican, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua—serves as an example to countries like the U.S., where the war on reproductive rights, and especially access to abortion, is gathering steam. El Salvador's criminalization is the natural result when a country continues to restrict abortion access until there is simply none left.

El Salvador's constitution states that life begins at conception, something Iowa, West Virginia, Texas and North Carolina have proposed in laws currently under debate. In 2013, Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for feticide after having a miscarriage. She walked free in 2016 after her feticide conviction was overturned.

If the law advances on Monday, it would send a clear message to women and girls in El Salvador —some of whom have never lived in a country where abortion is legal — that their lives matter too, says Garcia.

"If the law passes, women could go to a public hospital and actually access their services to protect their health," she says. "It becomes a right for all women, not only for women who have money."

"It would make a human right a real right, and not a privilege."