The woman’s doctors urged an end to her pregnancy, saying her life could be at risk and that the fetus would not survive anyway. El Salvador’s highest court rejected the plea , knocking down a challenge to one of the strongest anti-abortion laws in the world.
But on Tuesday, less than a week later, the woman, known publicly only as Beatriz, was recovering from a Caesarean section that ended her high-risk pregnancy after almost seven months of gestation, raising a fundamental question: Did doctors in a country that bans abortion under any circumstances manage to terminate the pregnancy without violating the law?
The answer lies in El Salvador’s terse and stringent law itself, doctors said. With no guidance on how to proceed in complicated cases or a clear definition of what constitutes an abortion, they say, the country’s strict penal code has left itself open to interpretation.
The court seemed to recognize the ambiguity even as it ruled, 4 to 1, against Beatriz’s appeal, citing the government’s ‘absolute impediment to authorize the practice of abortion.’
But, the ruling continued, the decision to ‘intervene medically’ to save Beatriz was to be determined by medical professionals.
On Monday, doctors removed Beatriz’s fetus — which had a severe defect that prevented the brain from developing — through an incision in her abdomen. They would have used the same procedure had the court ruled in Beatriz’s favor, according to her lawyer and the nation’s health minister, María Isabel Rodríguez.
Yet the procedure was not an abortion, the health minister said, because the fetus was delivered, placed in an incubator and provided fluids. It lived for five hours.
One Salvadoran anti-abortion group called the outcome a victory, describing the procedure as an induced birth in which the baby died of natural causes. Some abortion-rights advocates welcomed the outcome, too, saying it showed that El Salvador’s ironclad restriction did not have to imperil women with dangerous pregnancies, even when the fetus had little or no chance of surviving.
‘It is an abortion,’ said Alejandra Cárdenas, legal adviser for the Center for Reproductive Rights. ‘They are interrupting an unviable pregnancy.’
At its root, some legal experts said, the case was largely a battle over words.