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Conscience Magazine

Inter-American Court of Human Rights Takes on Case that Could Have Lasting Repercussions for Abortion Access in El Salvador

May 4, 2021
El Salvador’s Las 17 protestors demonstrating for those unjustly imprisoned under the country’s draconian laws for
pregnancy-related crimes.

THE INTER-AMERICAN COURT of Human Rights heard a case in March 2021 that could force El Salvador to acknowledge that its draconian abortion policies violate the human rights of dozens of women imprisoned in the country. Centered on the case of Manuela—the pseudonym of a woman sentenced to a three-decade prison sentence for complications from childbirth in 2008— many international rights observers view this case as potential sea change in a country with some of the most totalitarian abortion laws on the planet. Banned even in cases of rape and incest, sentences for abortion range from two years to half a century. Capable of broad interpretation, these harsh laws allow for cases such as Manuela’s, where mothers are prosecuted for murder in the instance of stillbirths or miscarriages.

Manuela died of cancer two years into her 30-year sentence, and her family blames inadequate access to medical treatment for her death. Her parents and surviving sons are seeking remuneration for her death, while spotlighting the laws that unjustly sent their mother to prison.

Both public and legislative voices support cases like Manuela’s. In an interview with Univision’s Jorge Ramos, El Salvador’s Vice President Felix Ulloa said that the country’s total abortion ban was under review as part of larger plan to reform the constitution. Any such reform, however, will face strong opposition. Hypervocal and conservative Catholic and evangelical groups are lined up to organize against any measures that seek to challenge the right to life commencing at conception— a right that is written into the constitution—and would impede virtually all efforts to liberalize abortion laws. With dozens of women already incarcerated for breaches of the existing law that mirror Manuela’s, and the recent legalization of abortion in Argentina, supporters of choice in El Salvador and abroad are anxiously awaiting the court’s decision, expected later this year.