The foreign policy case for decriminalizing abortion in El Salvador

For nearly two decades, El Salvador has criminalized abortion in all circumstances imposing harsh penalties, including incarceration, for women. With women’s rights groups in El Salvador urging lawmakers to allow exceptions to the ban in certain circumstances, this could soon all change. The Salvadoran Commission of Legislation and Constitutional Issues has the opportunity to vote on two reform proposals that would decriminalize abortion. Here’s the foreign policy case for doing so.

In October 2016, a group of Salvadoran congresswomen introduced an amendment to the penal code that would allow women to access safe and legal abortion services when pregnancy poses a risk to their health or life or in cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal impairments. The amendment received wide support from international human rights organizations and 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 20 of Salvadoran women’s rights groups including the Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion (La Agrupación Ciudadana). 

{mosads}Almost a year later, another amendment was proposed to lift the total abortion ban in two specific circumstances: when a woman’s life or health is in danger and the rape of minors.  Both bills are pending consideration within the Salvadoran Commission of Legislation and Constitutional Issues before it goes to the full Congress for further discussion and a final vote.

At a time when El Salvador uses its abortion ban to justify the wrongful imprisonment of women who suffer from obstetric complications, this vote to amend the penal code is critical.

Both pieces of legislation, if passed, would allow women a better chance at life in El Salvador.

In February, Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was released from prison after the Salvadoran Supreme Court of Justice and the Ministry of Justice and Public Safety commuted her sentence. Vásquez served 11 years of a 30-year prison sentence for a stillbirth. The courts explained their sentence, saying “there were powerful reasons based on justice, equity, and legal concepts that justify favoring her with the grace of commutation.”

Just last month, Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín was released from prison after serving 15 years for a stillbirth she experienced during a pregnancy resulting from rape. Without witnesses or any direct proof, Maira Veronica was convicted of aggravated homicide in 2003 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Justice approved the commutation of her sentence.

Vásquez and Marroquín are just two of the more than 28 women who have been wrongfully imprisoned after suffering pregnancy-related complications in El Salvador. Their decades in prison show the terrible violations of human rights and due process.

I am not alone in urging the Salvadoran legislature to lift this total ban on abortion.

In July 2017, I led a letter with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-Calif.) and Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) to El Salvador’s President of the Legislative Assembly H.E. Guillermo Gallegos Navarrete following reports of a Salvadoran teen wrongfully sentenced to 30 years in prison for experiencing medical complications that ended her pregnancy.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has called on El Salvador to repeal its total ban and immediately pass a law to decriminalize abortion at a minimum in limited circumstances.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions issued a report calling on States to repeal laws criminalizing abortion and ensure women do not have to undertake life-threatening clandestine abortions.

After a visit to El Salvador, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein recommended a moratorium on the country’s application of the total abortion ban and a review of all cases where women have been detained for abortion-related offences.

Lifting the abortion ban in El Salvador is in the United States’ and global interests. It will save lives, allow women to contribute more to the national and global economy, enable societies to prosper and build stronger communities. Enabling women to fully participate in the economy and allowing abortion in cases of rape or incest will make for a stronger, more stable society.

El Salvador’s strict and deadly abortion ban is holding its women, and therefore the global economy, back. Research shows that if women were full participants in the global economy, we would see an additional $12-28 trillion dollars in growth in the global GDP by 2025. Besides the economics, it is simply wrong that women anywhere are denied access to the same economic opportunities as men.

In just 27 countries with the biggest USAID-supported programs, the rate of modern contraception has risen from under 10 percent a half-century ago to 37 percent today. In El Salvador, 64 percent of women have access to contraception. We still have a ways to go, and passing legislation to decriminalize abortion in these critical cases will inch us closer to the safer, more prosperous society we all wish to see.

El Salvador is at a critical moment when there is a real opportunity to reform the country’s abortion law.  Such a move would serve to improve El Salvador’s human rights record, address a human and public health crisis, and prevent the wrongful incarceration of Salvadoran women.

Women’s rights are human rights too. No woman should ever face imprisonment because of a miscarriage or a stillbirth. I am encouraged to see the Assembly consider reforming this law, and my hope is that Salvadoran lawmakers choose the right side of history.

U.S. Congressman Joaquin Castro represents the 20th District of Texas and is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and is the First Vice Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Tags Abortion Debbie Wasserman Schultz El Salvador Joaquin Castro

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