El Salvador mulls reproductive rights with abortion law on cusp of historic vote

Jen Offord

El Salvador is on the cusp of a historic vote on the future of women's reproductive rights in the country, as a growing campaign has highlighted the plight of women facing its draconian abortion law. The Central American country's healthcare commission could now vote as soon as Monday (27 March) on whether or not the decriminalisation of abortion should be debated by the legislative assembly.

A total ban on abortion was implemented in 1998, as the country rebuilt itself following more than a decade of bitter civil war. Having played a key role in brokering the peace agreement which ended the war, the Catholic Church was able to use its position to influence legislative changes, including one that would see abortion banned in all circumstances.

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Under the current law, abortion is illegal even in the instance that a woman's health or life is endangered, or the pregnancy is not viable. Aside from the physical and psychological health issues related to this, the number of women risking their lives to undergo dangerous backstreet abortions, the legal implications are also troubling.

Though abortion technically carries a sentence of up to eight years, in reality many of the cases are tried as homicides, which carries a maximum sentence of 40 years. Additionally, there has been a number of cases of women being imprisoned for abortion when their pregnancy miscarried.

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Speaking to IBTimes UK on behalf of US-based The Women's Center, human rights lawyer and women's rights advocate Paula Avila Guillen said: "Women were being punished for miscarriages."

Las 17, so-called because of the 17 women imprisoned, despite not having aborted their pregnancies at the time of the campaign's launch, has worked in the country to highlight the plight of such women. This action has culminated in the release of some though others remain in prison, including Veronica who was imprisoned for 30 years after miscarrying in the final weeks of her pregnancy, which occurred as a result of rape. She was 19 at the time and has served 11 years of her sentence.

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As a result of this campaigning following the revelation of high rates of suicide in teenage girls, debate has opened up once more, with the Healthcare Commission set to vote on whether or not the El Salvadorian government should vote on relaxing of the laws to decriminalise abortion in cases of the pregnancy presenting a threat to the woman's life, the pregnancy is not viable, the rape or trafficking of women or girls.

With three members of the nine-person committee in favour of a vote on the issue by the legislative assembly, three against and three undecided, the legal changes are far from a forgone conclusion and in fact only a year ago the country's opposition party had attempted to have the maximum penalty for abortion increased to 50 years.

Nonetheless, the commission's vote signifies a great shift in opinion, while campaigners across the US worry about the direction of travel for reproductive rights under President Donald Trump. If the assembly ultimately votes to change the law, it would give El Salvador more progressive abortion laws than Ireland.

Guillen said: "[Changes to the law] are still minimal, but for El Salvador it will be huge."

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