(PRESS RELEASE) Today Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Norma J. Torres delivered a letter from 21 Members of Congress, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Eliot Engel, calling on President Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador and President of the Salvadoran Congress Guillermo Gallegos Navarrete to support efforts to decriminalize abortion in El Salvador
In the letter, members of Congress express opposition to the current abortion ban in El Salvador and urge President Cerén to work closely with civil society and the Salvadoran Congress to pass a law that at a minimum allows women access to safe and legal abortion services when pregnancy poses a risk to their health or life and in cases of rape and fatal fetal impairments. The letter emphasizes that while the decriminalization of abortion in certain circumstances still falls short of full reproductive access for Salvadoran women, it would nonetheless represent a significant improvement and bring El Salvador into closer compliance with international human rights standards.
For nearly two decades, El Salvador has criminalized abortion in all circumstances—even when necessary to save a woman’s life—imposing harsh criminal penalties on both women and physicians. The ban has resulted in the imprisonment of countless women who have suffered pregnancy-related complications and miscarriages, who are then charged for having an abortion and wrongfully convicted of homicide.
“Too many women in El Salvador fear imprisonment when seeking medical care because of the country’s hostility toward abortion,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “President Cerén and the Salvadoran Congress must end the criminalization of women once and for all. We thank Representatives Wasserman Schultz and Torres for their commitment to women’s human rights and their support for abortion law reform.”
In 2015, Representatives Wasserman Schultz and Torres organized a congressional letter calling on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to look into the cases of “Las 17,” women in El Salvador who suffered obstetric emergencies and were wrongly accused of having an abortion and later convicted for homicide under the country’s absolute ban on abortion.
“El Salvador’s criminalization of abortion in all circumstances puts the lives of impoverished women and girls there in serious peril every day, especially since most of them lack access to basic education and health care services,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23). “While decriminalizing abortion in some circumstances would still not measure up to international standards, it could dramatically improve a dire situation in El Salvador.”
On March 3, 2017, the U.S. Department of State released the 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. In its El Salvador report, the State Department delves into reproductive rights abuses, mentioning the country’s total abortion ban and the wrongful imprisonment of Las 17.
In December 2014, a coalition of NGOs led by Agrupación Ciudadana and the Center for Reproductive Rights launched the “Las17” online campaign calling for the release of “Guadalupe” and 16 other Salvadoran women who all suffered obstetric emergencies, were accused of having illegal abortions and were later convicted of homicide. “Mirna,” one of “Las 17,” was released in December 2014 after serving her prison sentence before her pardon could be finalized. In February 2015, Guadalupe was successfully released and pardoned, after serving seven years in prison. In May 2016, Maria Teresa was released after a judge ruled that there were violations of due process in her case. And in February 2016 Sonia Tábora obtained her permanent freedom. The remaining women are each currently serving 30-40 year sentences for crimes they never committed.
The Center for Reproductive Rights has worked to expose the consequences that El Salvador’s blanket abortion ban has on the lives of women. The Center together with the Agrupación Ciudadana filed a case in December 2015 before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—a principal human rights body for the Americas—on behalf of nine women who had serious pregnancy complications and are now in prison due to the severe enforcement of El Salvador’s absolute abortion ban. The Center and the Agrupación Ciudadana co-authored the report Marginalized, Persecuted and Imprisoned: The Effects of El Salvador’s Total Criminalization of Abortion that documents the human rights consequences of the abortion ban. The report analyzes how El Salvador’s health, judicial, and prison systems fail to guarantee women’s human rights.