Marginalized, Persecuted, and Imprisoned: The Effects of El Salvador’s Total Criminalization of Abortion

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The situation in El Salvador is a clear manifestation of how the criminalization of abortion violates the state’s international obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. This criminalization violates women’s rights to life, health, and autonomy. In addition, the application of the law criminalizing abortion results in violations of the rights to due process, privacy, and freedom from violence and cruel or inhuman treatment.

This report uses a human rights perspective to document and expose the consequences of El Salvador’s total criminalization of abortion. First, our analysis gives voice to five women who were wrongly prosecuted for abortion-related crimes after suffering obstetric emergencies in the absence of medical attention. Their experiences demonstrate the Salvadorian state’s failure, through its punitive practices, to respect women’s dignity and human rights, as well as the consequences that such failure have for the country’s health, legal, and prison systems. The repercussions are as serious as unfounded 35-year prison sentences. Similarly, the report also shows the disproportionate impact that criminalization can have on especially vulnerable women such as the poor, uneducated, and young.

Second, this report addresses the criminalization of abortion from a qualitative angle that examines the profiles of women who were put on trial for abortion-related crimes between 2000 and 2011. The analysis uses a number of variables—including age, education, occupation, and income level—to illustrate how such restrictive legislation can lead to patterns of human rights violations, particularly for El Salvador’s most vulnerable women. The study also analyzes the context of the women’s judicial proceedings, including the sources of the criminal complaints, the criminal offenses for which the women were accused and brought to trial, and the rulings resulting from their legal proceedings.