Image courtesy of BBC

Image courtesy of BBC

When Carmen Vasquez was 17 years old, a neighbor of the house where she worked as a maid sexually assaulted her and she became pregnant as a result. During the final trimester of her pregnancy, Carmen began to bleed but her employer did not allow her to leave the house to access medical care. She gave birth alone, in the house where she worked, and the baby boy she delivered died shortly thereafter. Her employer then took Carmen to the hospital because she did not want to “deal with two dead in my house”. Carmen woke up the next day, handcuffed to the bed. The policemen told her, “ if this was my woman, I would have blown her brains out.” Carmen was ultimately sentenced to 30 years of jail time for aggravated homicide.

Sadly, Carmen in not alone. Dozens of women like her are being prosecuted and imprisoned on homicide charges after suffering miscarriages, stillbirths, or obstetric emergencies away from medical attention. Others, like Beatriz, are expected to risk their lives in order to carry their pregnancies to term. El Salvador’s Supreme Court initially refused to authorize a medical abortion for the 22-year-old lupus sufferer, whose life was at risk and whose foetus was unviable. The Ministry of Health eventually allowed Beatriz to undergo a live-saving C-section once the pregnancy reached 27 weeks. The baby died within hours.

El Salvador’s current abortion law, adopted in 1998, bans abortions under all circumstances, even when the pregnancy poses a risk to the woman’s life or is the result of a rape. Furthermore, as of 1999, Article I of the country’s Constitution recognizes the right to life from the moment of conception, providing a legal basis for the government to prosecute abortion-related crimes as homicide. Article 133 of the Criminal Code states that any person who terminates or assists in the termination of a pregnancy can face imprisonment for 2 to 8 years.

When it comes to abortion, El Salvadorian lawmakers are currently at a crossroads. On the one hand, the country’s leading conservative party, ARENA, proposed a reform of Article 133 that would increase the sentence range for women terminating pregnancies or people assisting in the termination of a pregnancy to 30 to 50 years. On the other hand, the country’s ruling leftist party, the FMLN, recently introduced legislation that would lift the absolute ban on abortion and permit it under 3 circumstances (i.e. in cases of risk to the woman’s life, rape, or where the foetus is unviable).

The stakes of both lawmaking initiatives are high, particularly for the poor women living in rural parts of El Salvador who are most likely to be affected by laws that not only criminalize abortion but also lead to the imprisonment of women for miscarriages, stillbirths, or other obstetric emergencies.