“Abortion” in English is aborto provocado in Spanish. “Miscarriage” is aborto espontáneo. Simple enough.
Yet in El Salvador, a largely Catholic Central American country of around 6 million, this distinction has been blurred. For many expectant mothers, spontaneous pregnancy losses—unexpected, frightening, and tragic—have been declared intentional and criminal. Some of these mothers are doing hard time.
Why is this happening?
The country’s 1998 penal code—which was enacted under a right-wing president but remains in force under the country’s current center-left government—prohibits abortion in all circumstances. That includes even when the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy, the fetus is severely abnormal or nonviable, or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Shortly after the code went into effect, the country’s constitution was amended to give the embryonic human a right to life from the moment of conception, reinforcing the total ban.
Now a woman convicted of having an abortion could be sentenced to 2–8 years in prison, while medical professionals assisting her could serve 6-12 years. Complicating matters, penalties for women increase dramatically when they’re charged with aggravated homicide of a family member, which can happen when the lost fetus is considered to have been viable. Mothers can be sentenced up to 50 years in prison on these charges.
This August, I was part of a US delegation led by Roy Bourgeois from the School Of Americas Watch and organized by the Center for Exchange and Solidarity, or CIS. We went to San Salvador to learn more about this no-exception anti-abortion law and the punitive atmosphere it has fostered.
We also wanted to meet some of the law’s collateral damage: the women known as Las 17.
Blurring the Lines
In April of last year, there were approximately 30 women who’d either already been convicted or were being prosecuted for alleged abortion-related crimes. Of those, 17 had exhausted all but one of their legal remedies: an official pardon.
All 17 had suffered stillbirths or complications at birth that were later declared aggravated or imperfect aggravated homicides by the courts—all without a presumption of innocence, any real evidence, or due process. When lawyers petitioned for their pardons that month, Las 17 suddenly became the public face for all women facing incarceration for pregnancy loss.