Jailed for losing your baby - why the El Salvador abortion law must change

23 Mar 2018

The recent release of Carmen Vasquez, a 34-year-old woman who was sentenced to thirty years’ imprisonment after she was accused of ‘aggravating murder’ after a stillbirth has highlighted the horrific treatment of pregnant women in El Salvador.


The Central American country forbids women to terminate a pregnancy, even in the case of rape or an ectopic foetus. Carmen Vasquez had been excited about the imminent birth of her child, but soon began to experience serious abdominal pains. After losing consciousness, she came around to the news that she had had a stillbirth. Devastating enough without subsequently being accused of murdering her own dead child.


Even though Vasquez is to be released next month on lack of scientific evidence for the charge, her conviction is yet to be overturned. Human rights groups, such as the Salvadorian Association for the Decriminalisation of Abortion, have argued that justice for Vasquez still hasn't been served, nor has she received any compensation for the physical and emotional trauma, both legal and maternal, she has endured. Women such as Vasquez are typically young, single and poor, and are therefore defenceless against this inherently sexist and archaic piece of legislation. They face a choice between two equally cruel options: undergo an illegal abortion with the risk of being charged, or continue with an unwanted pregnancy. A statement released by Amnesty International summed up the attitude of most pro-choice activists towards El Salvador. ‘It is encouraging to Vasquez stepping out of jail, where she should have never been in the first place,’ it read, ‘but El Salvador is still far from fully ensuring the rights of women and girls in the country.’


Vasquez is one of seventeen women to be imprisoned in such circumstances in recent years, promoting the launch of the ‘Las 17’ campaign in 2014. Three woman have since been released, but El Salvador has a long way to go before this human rights violation can be said to have been eradicated.


‘The El Salvadorian government is perpetuating the criminal prosecution of women who suffer pregnancy complications, denying women their dignity, freedom and rights,’ said Nancy Northup, president and spokeswoman for the Centre for Reproductive Rights. She added that the treatment of pregnant women revealed a lot about the deeply ingrained misogyny at the heart of the country’s institutions. Amnesty International has urged change to come from the top, for they fear that otherwise no progress will be made. ‘Authorities in El Salvador must urgently repeal this outrageous abortion ban which has created a pervasive context of discrimination, pain and injustice,’ said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty’s director for the Americas.


The case of El Salvador is a frightening remind that, while many countries around the globe are marching slowly towards full sexual equality, there are still gross examples of state-sponsored misogyny which need to be tackled. Even closer to home, in Northern Ireland, the country’s exemption from the 1967 Abortion Act means thousands of women often need to travel to England to obtain the services they need. Under Irish law, women are forced to continue with a pregnancy even in the case of rape or extreme health risks. Suddenly El Salvador does not seem so far away.


2018 marks one hundred years since women in the UK were granted the right to vote. Yet in both developing and developed countries around the world, the sexism of government is so entrenched that even the most natural of human functions is treated as criminal if the perpetrator has the misfortune to be a woman.

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