U.N. Committee: El Salvador Must Repeal Total Abortion Ban

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(PRESS RELEASE) El Salvador should repeal its total abortion ban and pass a law that decriminalizes abortion in limited circumstances, according to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). 

In its recommendations, CEDAW called on the government to expedite a proposed amendment in the Salvadoran Congress that decriminalizes abortion in cases of rape, fatal fetal impairments and when a pregnancy puts the health or life of a woman at risk. CEDAW also called on El Salvador to immediately review the cases of more than 17 innocent women (“Las 17”) who are currently serving prison sentences of up to 40 years after suffering from obstetric complications, with the aim of ensuring their release.

During the CEDAW review in February, Vice President of the Salvadoran Congress Lorena Peña represented the government and announced the government’s official endorsement of the proposed bill to decriminalize abortion. Days later, the Salvadoran Ministry of Health publicly endorsed the bill. Prior to the CEDAW review, the Center for Reproductive Rights submitted a joint report with Agrupación Ciudadana and Debevoise &, Plimpton LLP to CEDAW detailing how El Salvador’s total abortion ban leads to discrimination and human rights violations against women.

Said Catalina Martínez Coral, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center:

“The Salvadoran government’s hostility towards abortion endangers the health and lives of women.

“Today the U.N. Committee affirmed that it’s long past time lawmakers in El Salvador decriminalize abortion.

“We hope the growing number of public endorsements for this important abortion bill urges Congress to finally implement a law that ensures all women have access to reproductive health services and ends the persecution of Salvadoran women.” 

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.

In its recommendations, CEDAW called on El Salvador to reform its Criminal Procedure Code in order to eliminate the practice of health professionals and public officials reporting women to the police based merely on the suspicion of abortion.

During the CEDAW review, Carmen Guadalupe Vasquez Aldana (“Guadalupe”), a Salvadoran woman who was wrongfully imprisoned after an obstetric emergency and later absolved and released in 2015, testified to the U.N. members. In 2007, Guadalupe became pregnant after she was raped and months later she suffered an obstetric emergency, when she fell unconscious and had a stillbirth. She woke up in a hospital where she learned that medical staff reported her to the police on suspicion of obtaining an induced abortion. In February 2008 she was sentenced to 30 years in prison on charges of aggravated homicide. After the Center and Agrupación Ciudadana raised awareness in the local government and with the United Nations, Guadalupe was pardoned and freed in February 2015 after the Salvadoran Supreme Court found serious due process violations in her case.

“Today I feel empowered,” said Guadalupe, “I want to return to fight for the Salvadoran Congress to hear what the United Nations Committee has recommended. We are innocent, and no woman should be unjustly imprisoned. It’s time for us to be heard.

In October 2016, Lorena Peña introduced an amendment to the country’s penal code that, if passed, would decriminalize abortion in cases of rape, fatal fetal impairments and when a pregnancy puts the health or life of a woman at risk. The amendment received wide support from the Alliance for the Health and Life of Women (la Alianza por la Salud y la Vida de Las Mujeres)—a coalition of more than 30 human rights organizations and international human rights activists including Agrupación Ciudadana.

“Congress can no longer delay passage of this critical bill to allow safe abortion services. We must put an end to the mistreatment of women,” said Morena Herrera, Executive Director of Agrupación Ciudadana.

The Center for Reproductive Rights has worked for more than 12 years 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.  

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 charged for having an abortion 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 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.


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