In the News 2014

Religious opposition and hostile press obstruct pro-choice campaigners in El Salvador

Rosa Maria Hernandez’s opponents say she is promoting the law of death and a traitor to her country, El Salvador, and to Catholicism. Hernandez heads Catholics for the Right to Decide in El Salvador.

In a deeply Catholic nation, pro-choice activists campaigning to get the country’s blanket ban on abortion overturned so that women can have safe and legal abortions, face strong resistance from the country’s Catholic Church, evangelical groups and conservative press.

Abortion is a crime in El Salvador and has been illegal under all circumstances since 1998 – even in cases of rape, incest, a severely deformed foetus or when the woman’s life is in danger.

Almost weekly, anti-abortion columnists in El Salvador’s newspaper El Diario de Hoy condemn any moves to ease the country’s prohibitive abortion law.

“They run weekly columns in El Diario de Hoy, tarnishing our movement’s name, and say we’re proposing the law of death. They have the political connections and money to do this,” Hernandez told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from the capital San Salvador.

“We feel censored by the press because it’s difficult to get our word out and let people know that the abortion ban kills women because they can’t access a safe abortion.”

In El Salvador and six other countries in Latin America where abortion is completely banned, the rates of maternal mortality rise because doctors are afraid they can face jail time by providing life-saving treatment when it can affect a pregnancy, even when it’s the only way to save a mother’s life, according to rights group Amnesty International.

Outright abortion bans also mean women are more likely to undergo dangerous backstreet abortions, which put their lives at risk.

With about 4.2 million abortions a year, most of them unsafe, Latin America is among the regions with the highest number of unsafe abortions, according to the International Planned Parenthood Federation.


El Salvador’s abortion ban is not only a leading cause of maternal mortality in the country but has also led to the wrongful imprisonment of hundreds of women and girls, falsely convicted of inducing abortions when in fact they suffered miscarriages, stillbirths, or complications during pregnancy or birth, a local rights group says.

According to the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Therapeutic, Ethical, and Eugenic Abortion (CFDA), 34 El Salvadoran women are in jail for abortion-related crimes. CFDA and international rights groups in May submitted a request to local lawmakers for 17 of the 34 women to be pardoned.

Yet activists are up against a powerful conservative lobby in the country’s congress, bent on maintaining the complete ban, and the country’s influential Roman Catholic Church and evangelical groups, who say the rights of an unborn child should be protected by law at all costs, from the moment of conception.

Catholics for Choice – and their network of Latin American partner organisations, including El Salvador’s Catholics for the Right to Decide – argue that women should decide for themselves.

“Catholics for Choice looks to the Catholic teaching on conscience. Our conscience is how God informs us about what to do. We are in favour of trusting women to make their own decisions based on their conscience,” said Jacqueline Nolley, international programme senior associate of Catholics for Choice.

While the Catholic Church in El Salvador plays an important role in society and politics – having helped broker a peace accord to end the country’s 1980-1992 civil war as well as recent truces between its powerful street gangs – it has fallen short on reproductive rights, she says.

“It is disappointing that after championing human rights, at significant personal cost during the civil war, the hierarchy turned against women, social justice and the Catholic preferential option for the poor, using its influence in politics to support a draconian ban on abortion,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Washington.

“We believe most Catholics do not agree with the position of the hierarchy of the church on absolute bans on abortion or laws that limit the availability of contraception.”

It’s a message Hernandez, her three colleagues and 10 volunteers are spreading among young El Salvadorans to pressure lawmakers and society at large about the need to ease abortion laws.


In May last year, the case of Beatriz, an ill woman from El Salvador carrying a malformed foetus, sparked debate over the country’s total ban on abortion. Her plight raised a global outcry after El Salvador’s high court upheld the ban even though her life was at risk and the foetus was unlikely to survive. Beatriz later underwent a Caesarian section, and survived the procedure, though her baby died.

The cases of Beatriz and the 17 imprisoned women up for pardon have dramatically changed the abortion debate in the Central American nation.

“The public debate on abortion in El Salvador is miles ahead of what it was three to five years ago. The tide has really turned in terms of the discussions about loosening restrictions on abortion,” said Nolley.

“I see the momentum for decriminalising abortion really growing in El Salvador. Civil society there is demanding a change.”

This piece was originally published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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