The government and legislature of El Salvador have once again shown their blatant disregard for women’s health and wellbeing by adjourning without voting on proposals to weaken the country’s draconian anti-abortion law. El Salvador is one of the remaining five countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to completely ban abortion under all circumstances. The situation is made even worse for women because the law is enforced with exceptional severity and arbitrariness.
In mid-April 2018 the Spanish-language cable network Univision aired a segment on “Primer Impacto” chronicling Salvadoran women’s rights activists’ attempts to get justice for women imprisoned under the law. At least two dozen women who suffered miscarriages or stillbirths late in pregnancy while not under a doctor’s care (in other words, women from the impoverished majority of the population) were initially charged with abortion, a crime bearing a sentence of up to eight years for both the woman and the abortionist. But prosecutors wound up getting the women charged and convicted of aggravated homicide, and they were sent to prison for up to thirty years. Protests by feminist and human rights organizations within El Salvador and throughout the world have succeeded in freeing five of the incarcerated women. But so far the Salvadoran government and judiciary have refused to review most of the cases. Meanwhile, the proposals to grant exceptions to the ban on abortion when the woman’s life is in danger or when a minor is pregnant as a result of rape have once again been stymied.
The bitter ironies in the Salvadoran situation are many. The tiny, densely-populated country has been experiencing an unprecedented upswing in violent criminal activity, in part because of deportations from the U.S. of Salvadoran gang members from Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and elsewhere (young men born in El Salvador but reared and introduced to crime in the U.S.), and in part because of the large numbers of ex-military and ex-paramilitary individuals left unemployed after the end of the U.S.-bankrolled counter-insurgency war against earlier movements for social justice and national liberation. Yet the government seems more concerned with policing women’s bodies and enforcing one of the harshest anti-abortion laws in the world than in trying to control criminal violence.
Another irony: Salvadoran anti-abortion fanatics have had the unmitigated gall to portray supporters of weakening the anti-abortion law as being under the influence of foreigners. The reality is that worldwide most of the funding of the most strident anti-abortionists comes from Catholic or Protestant fundamentalist organizations based in the U.S. The present Salvadoran outright prohibition is only twenty years old and was enacted in 1998 at the instigation of U.S.-based anti-abortion groups. Earlier Salvadoran anti-abortion legislation was not as sweeping, and enforcement was not so vicious.
In the early to mid-1990s it was possible to have discussions of the harmful public health consequences of illegally induced abortion without participants being intimidated and shouted down by anti-abortion zealots. I myself attended conferences in 1993 and 1994 in San Salvador at which speakers addressed the lack of sex education in Salvadoran schools, the horrible consequences for women’s health of abortion under unsafe conditions, the enormous costs to Salvadoran taxpayers, the need for freely distributed contraception, the injustice of safe clandestine abortions being available to affluent but not to ordinary women, and Salvadoran indigenous women’s use of native plants for abortifacient purposes. These conferences were well-attended and well-publicized, and both were co-sponsored by the Salvadoran Women Doctors’ Association. But by the late-1990s throughout Central America the situation had changed. Anti-abortion fanatics, largely funded by U.S.-based organizations, increasingly made it their business to harass legislators, gynecologists, and women’s health clinic personnel. The atmosphere of belligerence and intimidation has deterred many doctors from performing abortions in circumstances in which they would have had no qualms about performing them in the days before the anti-abortion zealots became so threatening. In the words of the independent legislator who proposed one of the bills that would have softened the ban, “There is a lot more tolerance for corruption than there is for discussion on abortion.”
And so the outrage continues. Groups of self-righteous misogynists directed from the U.S. hypocritically and sanctimoniously proclaim their love of (embryonic) life, while Salvadoran women die from clandestine abortions under unsafe conditions, and at least twenty Salvadoran women languish in prison because they couldn’t afford doctors to bear witness to their miscarriages.