A bill has been put up for debate before El Salvador’s legislature that would decriminalize abortion in some circumstances: when the life of the mother is at risk, when the pregnancy is a result of rape, human trafficking or statutory rape, or when the fetus will not survive after birth.
Lorena Peta, a progressive feminist activist and current president of the Salvadorian Legislative Assembly, introduced the bill on October 11 and it is now working its way through committee hearings.
The bill faces an uphill battle as a win will require 12 members of the opposition party to vote in favor; earlier this year, the main opposition party proposed a bill that would increase the minimum sentence for abortion crimes to 30 years.
El Salvador is one of only six countries to have no exceptions in their criminalization of abortion. For 19 years abortion has been completely illegal in all cases, leading to the imprisonment and death of dozens of women, many of whom continue to claim that they suffered late term miscarriages.
Rates for illegal abortions among teenagers range between 6,000 and 35,000, with an estimated 11 percent resulting in the woman’s death according to the World Health Organization. Between 2000 and 2014, around 250 people were reported to authorities for suspected abortions, according to the Salvadorian Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion. 26 of those people were convicted for murder and another 23 were convicted for abortion. All of those imprisoned sought treatment at a public hospital instead of a private clinic, highlighting the socioeconomic targeting of the anti-abortion laws.
“We haven’t found another country where criminalization of obstetric emergencies is at such a systemic level as in El Salvador,” said Charles Abbott, a legal adviser for the Center for Reproductive Rights. He continued, “If a man raped a teenager and she aborted, his criminal sentence would be six to 10 years, and hers would be 30 to 50.”
30 percent of 2015 pregnancies in El Salvador were to girls between the ages of 10 and 19. Over 1,400 of them were under the age of 14, and still were forced to carry their pregnancies to term despite lacking “the necessary physical, psychological and emotional development.” Suicide is the leading cause of death among pregnant teenagers.
The Zika virus poses an additional threat to women’s safety and well-being. There have been 11,000 confirmed cases of Zika in El Salvador, and 334 are pregnant women. Not only can a woman not abort if her fetus is found to have debilitating abnormalities from the virus, but the increased risk of miscarriage potentially posed by Zika has many women fearing their late-term miscarriages could get them wrongly accused of a crime.