Why is El Salvador Cruelly Punishing Women Who Need Medical Help?

November 27, 2012

Ireland is not the only nation with strict abortion laws that cost women their lives.

Since 1998, El Salvador has had a total ban on abortions, under any circumstances. In March of this year, Salvadoran police arrested a woman (“Mery”) when she sought medical treatment after a clandestine abortion. The medical providers reported her to the police—as required by law. In addition to the physical complications associated with the abortion, she showed clear signs of emotional distress and panic.

Instead of providing “Mery” with counseling, the authorities sentenced her to two years in El Salvador’s violent, overcrowded prison system. Her emotional state deteriorated and she tried to kill herself in September 2012. Prison authorities responded by handcuffing “Mery” to a bed in a psychiatric hospital and placing an armed guard in her room. Amnesty is especially concerned because she has been cut off from both the psychological help she needs as well as legal counsel.

El Salvador has severely punished women who did not even have an abortion. The Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) recently brought an international case against El Salvador on behalf of “Manuela” and her family. Salvadoran courts sentenced “Manuela” to 30 years in prison following a still birth resulting from emergency obstetric complications. “Manuela” suffered from cancer, but the authorities failed to ensure she received proper medical treatment following her sentence. “Manuela” died in prison, leaving behind two young children.

In 1999, I watched Mauricio Funes, one of El Salvador’s most respected journalists at the time, interview an anti-abortion advocate. To my surprise, Funes failed to question or challenge his claim that abortion was never necessary for the health of the woman or girl. Funes has not moved to remove or amend El Salvador’s absolute ban on abortion since he became president in 2009.

When will the Salvadoran government heed the repeated calls from UN experts and women rights activists to comply with international legal obligations to protect women and girls’ right to health and life, and to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment?

It is too late to help “Manuela,” but please tell the Salvadoran authorities, including President Funes, to immediately and unconditionally release “Mery” and give her the care she needs as a human right. Please also tell them to decriminalize abortion so that other Salvadoran women do not continue to suffer such cruelty.