Women In El Salvador Face Lengthy Prison Terms For Violating Abortion Laws

In Howard Fast’s novel The Trial of Abigail Goodman, the story’s protagonist faced arrest and imprisonment after deciding to terminate her pregnancy. For some women in El Salvador, Fast’s future-tense fictional tale reflects the cold, hard reality of life in the present day. According to Al Jazeera America, 17 women, known to supporters as “Las 17,” are currently incarcerated in El Salvador’s Ilopango prison over allegations they violated the country’s strict abortion laws. Abortion has been illegal in El Salvador since 1997 and there are no exceptions to this law, including cases of rape and incest.

Amnesty International is taking the lead in opening a robust discussion on the matter of abortion rights in El Salvador. According to a release posted to the organization’s official site, Amnesty International’s Americas Director, Erika Guevara-Rosas, recently delivered a petition to El Salvador’s President Sánchez Cerén asking the official to repeal the country’s ban on abortion.

“El Salvador is moving to becoming a strong democracy. The battle over abortion is an extreme reflection of discrimination against women,” Guevara-Rosas said in a statement published by Al Jazeera America. “We know of 129 cases of women charged with abortion-related crimes and put in prison between 2003 and 2013. But there is no statistical information, and the number could be higher. And we know of 17 cases of women jailed for aggravated homicide.”

Critics of El Salvador’s abortion ban note that mere suspicion of an illegal procedure has resulted in the conviction and lengthy incarceration of women in particular cases. In January, Carmen Guadalupe Vasquez Aldana’s 30-year prison sentence was lifted by order of the country’s high court and legislature. She had been accused of intentionally terminating her pregnancy by prosecutors after she sought medical treatment for heavy bleeding, according to a report by NPR. Vasquez consistently maintained that medical complications resulted in a miscarriage and the country’s Supreme Court ultimately decided that there were significant questions regarding the case against her, “including a lack of scientific evidence about what caused the death of her baby.”

A comparable situation wrought havoc in the life of Mirna Isabel Ramírez, who was accused of trying to kill her daughter when she gave birth to the child in the toilet at her home in San Salvador. Ramírez, who spoke to Al Jazeera America, indicated that the birth was sudden and unexpected, adding that her husband contacted neighbors for assistance the day of the birth. Their neighbors subsequently contacted police alleging that Ramírez had tried to kill the child. Although her daughter did indeed survive, Ramírez was arrested and after a brief hearing, she was sentenced to 12-and-a-half years in prison for attempted aggravated homicide. El Salvador’s Supreme Court later pardoned Ramírez — with only weeks remaining on the completion of her sentence.

Activists in Washington D.C. took their concerns to El Salvador’s embassy on April 24, demonstrating against the country’s stand on abortion. Re-publising a report from AFP, The Tico Times noted that four protesters were arrested by the U.S. Secret Service after they entered the embassy, and sat in silence while displaying posters featuring slogans such as “Free Las 17.”

While El Salvador is not the only country in the world that imposes an unwavering ban on abortions, the Central American nation does not appear intent on following the general global trend of liberalization on the matter of reproductive rights. Moreover, those who oppose the country’s present laws concerning abortion risk social ostracism, including lawyers for women who are prosecuted under the controversial statutes. Dennis Munoz Estanley, who has defended women against allegations of illegal abortion in El Salvador, recently told The Guardian that his daughter has been discriminated against at school due to his work in the field, adding that he has had difficulty persuading other attorneys to join him in his efforts.

Over four decades after Roe v. Wade changed the legal landscape of abortion-related laws in the United States, Americans still grapple with basic questions and concerns regarding reproductive rights. But while channels of communication remain largely open between individuals, organizations, and branches of government in the United States, the women of El Salvador have no choice in the matter under the laws of their country. Because of that, some must endure personal hardship, threat of arrest, and isolation from society while those in positions of power make decisions for them.

[Photo by David McNew/Getty Images]