Last year, a 19-year-old woman went to a public hospital in El Salvador, bleeding and in terrible pain. Doctors told her she had a miscarriage. She hadn’t even known she was pregnant.
Within four days, the hospital had reported her to the police on suspicion of having an abortion, and she had been charged with aggravated murder. She was convicted on the flimsiest of evidence, and last month she was sentenced to 10 years in prison (prosecutors had wanted 50 years).
She’s not alone, either. Between 2000 and 2011, 129 women were prosecuted and 49 women convicted in El Salvador for illegally terminating their pregnancies. In many cases, the woman had not even intentionally ended her pregnancy–she had simply suffered a miscarriage or other naturally arising complications.
The BBC article profiles several of these women. One is serving a 40 year sentence for having a miscarriage. Another was sentenced to 30 years for aggravated murder after tragically losing her second child, but was able to have the sentence reduced to three years.
All of this has obviously made El Salvador’s pregnant young women much more reluctant to seek emergency care in the country’s public hospitals–and the reason I say public is because the common element in all of these cases is that the women were reported by public hospital staff.
It would be no exaggeration to say that El Salvador’s draconian anti-abortion laws are having a disparate impact on the country’s poor women–who are much less likely to be able to afford a trip to a private hospital (where thousands of illegal abortions are estimated to take place each year).
El Salvador is one of only three countries in the world in which abortion is illegal in all circumstances, and in which all exceptions have been eliminated by law (the other two countries being Chile and Nicaragua).
What do these three countries have in common besides being Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America? For starters, all three of them are predominantly Roman Catholic, and we’re all aware of the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion.
Now, I could make the libertarian case for legal and unregulated abortion, but I won’t do that here. Instead, I’ll just say this: There’s something very wrong with a society that values the life of an unborn fetus more than that of an adult woman (that values the potential more than actual).
Even if terminating a pregnancy is the act of taking a life, how can the “life” of an unborn fetus be worth a decade or more of the mother’s life?
And what of the fact that many of these women did not even choose to end their pregnancies, but instead suffered miscarriages or other complications? Even if abortion is murder, a miscarriage is not an abortion. How can a woman be held criminally liable for a natural occurrence over which she had no control (and for the crime of murder, no less)?
The criminalization of miscarriages is a disturbing trend in the long and sordid war on women’s bodies. Arresting and prosecuting women for experiencing natural pregnancy complications not only violates human rights, but its puts women’s lives at risk.
Worst of all, it treats misfortunate, often poor and unmarried young women as criminals and murderers. Said one of the women: “I will never understand why they did this to me, I lost four years of my life and still don’t know why I lost my baby.”