Numbers of evidence-based studies have shown that criminalizing and/or restricting access to abortion does not reduce the number of abortions . Moreover, in countries such as El Salvador where abortion is highly restricted, it is typically unsafe, where women seeking abortions are forced to compromise their health and often risk their lives . Research from the World Health Organization (WHO) has similarly indicated that the rate of unsafe abortion worldwide is likely to increase unless women are provided access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, including access to contraceptives and access to safe and legal abortion . In the case of El Salvador, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women has in fact identified the complete ban on abortion as being a direct contributor to the current high rates of maternal mortality in the country . Furthermore, young, poor and unmarried women are those who are most likely to resort to unsafe abortion, highlighting the impact of restrictive abortion laws in perpetuating social injustice and inequality. Restrictive laws and the threat of criminal sentences may also result in service providers being afraid to provide the necessary care and treatment to women experiencing obstetrical and/or post-abortion care emergencies, for fear of being accused of facilitating access to abortion, thereby further endangering women’s health and lives.
One of the most serious consequences of the complete ban on abortion in El Salvador is the incarceration and wrongful imprisonment of numbers of women who have suffered pregnancy-related complications and miscarriages. As noted by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), the complete ban on abortion in El Salvador has led to “serious cases of suffering and injustice,” allowing for women to be prosecuted for pregnancy losses under any circumstance, and particularly affecting women of lower socioeconomic status . The CESCR has also noted the particular cases of women such as Las 17, a group of women who accessed health services as a result of serious threats to their health, and who then received grossly disproportionate criminal sentences on suspicion of having an abortion, without being afforded their right to due process . A group of United Nations’ Special Rapporteurs have similarly urged El Salvador to pardon all women jailed for pregnancy complications and repeal the country’s restrictive abortion laws .
As asserted by the Committee Against Torture, punitive abortion laws violate women’s right to be
free from inhuman and cruel treatment . And as established in the Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, criminal laws which penalize and restrict induced abortion:
“[...] consistently generate poor physical health outcomes, resulting in deaths that could have been prevented, morbidity and ill-health, as well as negative mental health outcomes, not least because affected women risk being thrust into the criminal justice system. Creation or maintenance of criminal laws with respect to abortion may amount to violations of the obligations of States to respect, protect and fulfil the right to health” .
There is still much change needed in El Salvador for women to be able to exercise meaningful decision-making power in their lives, and have access to comprehensive health services, as part of the State’s obligation to guarantee the protection of the rights of all people, including women. We the undersigned organizations stand in solidarity with women in El Salvador. We urge the Salvadoran Congress to dismiss the ARENA proposal, and we echo Human Rights Bodies in urging the Salvadoran government to review its legislation concerning abortion, and amend Salvadoran laws in accordance with women’s fundamental human rights to health and dignity .
The international community is watching El Salvador, and we trust that the Salvadoran Congress will take all measures necessary to ensure that Salvadoran laws and practices conform with the international treaties and human rights standards to which El Salvador has committed.