Center for Reproductive Rights Files Case Revealing the Horrifying Reality of El Salvador's Ban on Abortion

Manuela’s story demonstrates the fatal consequences of El Salvador’s law and why it must change
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(PRESS RELEASE) El Salvador’s absolute ban on abortion has resulted in tragic and often fatal consequences for the women living in that country — resulting in the arbitrary imprisonment of women suffering from miscarriages and complications in their pregnancies, according to a petition filed today with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by the Center for Reproductive Rights and local Salvadoran organization Colectiva de Mujeres para el Desarrollo Local (Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto Ético, Terapéutico y Eugenésico de El Salvador).

Today’s petition was filed on behalf of “Manuela” (a pseudonym) and her family.  Manuela was a 33-year-old Salvadoran mother of two who was convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison after suffering severe complications giving birth. El Salvador has one of the most extreme abortion bans in the world—prohibiting abortion even when necessary to save a pregnant woman’s life and imposing harsh criminal penalties on both women and physicians.

“Women are paying a high price, in many cases with their lives, for El Salvador’s absolute ban on abortion,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), a global legal organization dedicated to advancing women's reproductive health. “El Salvador’s laws have turned emergency rooms into crime scenes, forcing pregnant women to live under a dark cloud of suspicion. The international community must come together to demand an end to this cruel treatment of women and make a commitment to safeguard fundamental reproductive rights.”

From the moment Manuela arrived at the hospital seeking emergency health care, slipping in and out of consciousness and hemorrhaging, doctors treated her as if she had attempted an abortion and immediately called the police. She was shackled to her hospital bed and accused of murder.

Manuela was sentenced to 30 years in prison without ever having a chance to meet with her lawyer, without an opportunity to speak in her own defense, and without the right to appeal the decision. Shockingly, the judge overseeing her case said that “her maternal instinct should have prevailed” and “she should have protected her child.”

After several months in prison, it was discovered that the visible tumors Manuela had on her neck  for which she sought medical care several times without being accurately diagnosed, was advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a disease that likely lead to the severe obstetric emergency she suffered.

Tragically, Manuela did not receive the appropriate treatment for her disease and died in prison in 2010, leaving behind her two young children. Her illness could have been caught earlier if she had received adequate medical attention when she consulted about her tumors in years prior, and if medical officials treating her during her emergency paid any attention to her condition, rather than focusing on reporting her to authorities.

This legal campaign marks the first time an international judicial body will hear the case of a woman imprisoned for seeking medical care due to obstetric emergencies, as a result of a total abortion ban. The case argues that El Salvador’s absolute ban on abortion violates a number of human rights, including the right to life, right to personal integrity and liberty, right to humane treatment, and the right to a fair trial and judicial protection.

“Salvadoran women have been unjustly persecuted by their government for far too long,” said Mónica Arango, CRR’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “We are bringing Manuela’s case before an international human rights body so women won’t suffer the same tragic fate, and El Salvador can finally be held accountable.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights will also issue a report later this year detailing the stories of Salvadoran women affected by the country’s absolute ban on abortion.

Abortion was once legal in El Salvador under a narrow set of circumstances, but even these limited exceptions were removed in 1998, as documented by CRR in a report released in 2000. Now El Salvador is among five countries in Latin America and the Caribbean — including Nicaragua, Honduras, Dominican Republic, and Chile — where abortion is absolutely prohibited even when the woman’s health or life is at risk. More information about abortion restrictions around the globe is available at CRR’s interactive World Abortion Laws map.

Under current Salvadoran law, anyone who performs an abortion with the woman’s consent, or a woman who self-induces or consents to someone else inducing her abortion, can be imprisoned for up to eight years.

But like Manuela, many women who miscarry or experience emergency obstetric complications are charged with aggravated murder, for which they can be imprisoned for up to 50 years, and subsequently spend decades behind bars.

“Liberalizing restrictive abortion laws, like El Salvador’s, is essential to saving the lives and protecting the health of millions of women across the globe every year,” said Northup. “Study after study has shown there are no positive outcomes to banning abortion outright.”

A recent study by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute reinforced the fact that restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower rates of abortion. According to the study, the 2008 abortion rate in Latin America—a region where abortion is highly restricted in almost all countries—was 32 per 1,000 women of childbearing age, while in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds, the rate is just 12 per 1,000.