El Salvador - Breaking the Silence on Criminalizing Abortion
FRIDAY FILE: As we commemorate the Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean on September 28 we take a look at the situation in El Salvador where abortion is illegal and where many women remain incarcerated because of these laws.
By Gabby De Cicco
According to Sara García, from the Citizens' Organization for Decriminalizing Therapeutic, Ethical and Eugenic Abortion in El Salvador, women in the country are still struggling to have their sexual and reproductive rights (SRR) recognized as human rights, because of laws and policies on abortion that violate these rights. She tell us how the complete prohibition of abortion is affecting women's lives and the strategies feminists are using to push back and to break the silence on this issue; and to place it on different agendas.
AWID: Can you tell us about the current abortion law in El Salvador?
Sara García (SG): In 1998, as a result of the pressure from fundamentalist groups linked to the Catholic hierarchy and to economic, political and media powers, a new Penal Procedural Code entered into force in criminalizing all types of abortion including those circumstances in which it was previously allowed. A year later, the Constitution was reformed to recognize that life begins at conception, which was a way to block the possibility of having any policy that would allow women to make decisions about their bodies.
AWID: How does it affect women's lives?
SG: Those changes have had different consequences. Firstly, a mechanism for harassment and inquisition was put in place, and both the Prosecutor’s Office and the Police had the mandate to prosecute this crime, even when there was only a suspicion that it had been committed. In practice, if a woman went to a public hospital because she was bleeding, she lost her right to be presumed innocent and would be investigated. The assumption became that every woman who is bleeding has had an abortion, and must investigated and then prosecuted.
At that time, the fear was so strong because one of the interpretations of the law, was that those speaking out about abortion were also going to be criminalized. This resulted in some civil society organizations, including women's groups to fall silent, which pushed the issue of decriminalization of abortion to the bottom of the agenda, losing social support.
AWID: How are feminists and women's rights groups now organizing to resist these restrictive laws?
SG: After those initial moments of silence, we set out to work and build a movement called "Women in solidarity with Karina”. Karina faced an obstetric emergency and after reaching the hospital, instead of treating her bleeding, the health professionals reported her because they assumed she had had an abortion. In 2002, she was condemned to 30 years in prison. In 2009, the solidarity movement became stronger as other social movements, the women's movement and international actors supported it. We took the case to Court to demand that her sentence be reviewed - invoking the judicial errors committed along the process. We submitted new evidence, and combined with social pressure, this helped to prove her innocence and show how unfair the current system is. Karina was deprived of her freedom for seven years. She told us about other women in the jail, which led us to take on other cases. It is in that context that we created the Citizens' Organization for Decriminalizing Abortion, a multidisciplinary space that allows us to break the silence and open up a dialogue, naming the reality and making visible the injustices created by this law.
We have facilitated workshops for journalists to discuss the best ways to deal with these cases. Often the news has a sensationalist tone, or portrays women who have had an abortion as "bad mothers", "sadists". So we’ve worked with the media and journalists, to provide them with language and data on human rights and SRR. We have also worked with the health workers' union, because we know there is a huge need there.
The Citizens' Organization conducted research on each first level Court across the country, trying to compile all the cases of women who have been reported and tried for abortion or aggravated homicide. This research showed that in 57% of the cases, the public hospitals across the country reported the women. This is a violation of a patient's right to confidentiality, and it happens because health professionals are afraid of the legal repercussions. While it is important to acknowledge that fear, we need to work on sensitizing medical practitioners about patients' right to confidentiality and how it is to respect it, showing also the consequence of failing to do so, is that women are in prison. This research also established that the most deprived of their freedom, are women living in poverty, with few years of formal education and are young.
AWID: Can you tell us about the case of The 17?
SG: We wanted the cases of the 17 women imprisoned for pregnancy complications to have an impact on the media, so that the issue would become better. Talking with Mexican compañeras from Las Libres (the Free Ones) in Guanajuato who are doing the same work we do - we learned of a strategy they used to litigate the cases of seven women at the same time, making the injustice visible, as something collective. This legal strategy led to wider media exposure, bringing the case to public attention, with different media, social institutions and organizations reacting.
Building on this experience, we realized we could use something we have in our laws - a pardon that negates the sentence. On April 1, 2014, we organized a caravan from the women's prison to the Legislative Assembly, where we submitted the 17 requests for pardon. We managed to identify a common profile for "The 17" - they were young women, reported by public hospitals, and some of them did not even know they were pregnant.
At the national level, we have approached the Justice and Human Rights Commissions in the Legislative Assembly and the Ombudsman’s Office (PDDH in Spanish). MPs from the ruling Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, have written a letter committing their support for the pardon for The 17. David Morales of the PDDH has been quite positive - he opened a specific case for The 17 and is already preparing a report based on another document that the PDDH already had, exposing the inhumane situation facing these women unjustly deprived of their freedom.
At the international level we have created spaces on social media, inviting people to send solidarity messages to The 17, videos, and letters to the Legislative Assembly and the Court. By September 1 2014 we had already gathered 10,000 signatures.
These series of actions has placed the issue on the agenda, which was one of our goals. The consequences of criminalizing abortion are being discussed on the basis of specific cases and of what it does to women's lives.
AWID: What are the next steps? Do you have anything particular in mind for September 28?
SG: For The 17 we will continue with the signature campaign through networks, approaching legislators and people in decision making positions. But we are also doing several activities around September 28. The Amnesty International General Secretary will visit us to launch the Campaign My Body, My Right and a report on the situation of women's human rights and the criminalization of abortion in El Salvador. Together with other social movements, feminists are organizing a caravan to broaden the fight for decriminalizing abortion in El Salvador and in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The head of the Technical Commission for Follow-Up to the Belem do Para Convention, Luz Patricia Mejía will be visiting and we hope she will help us to position and make visible the consequences of criminalization. Alda Facio will be our third guest. We will visit the women's prisons with each guest to make visible the clearest consequences of criminalization.
All this will help sustain the logic we bring to the media: to be against a law that we consider unfair, and not a crime. If we are indeed in a democratic country, and we believe a law to be unfair, as citizens, to say so and to discuss it cannot be a crime.
 Therapeutic - when women's lives are at risk; ethical - when the pregnancy is the result of sexual violence, and eugenic- when the product the woman is carrying has anomalies that are incompatible with life outside the uterus.
 “Because what happens in these cases is that women are first reported for abortion but then, as the Court case moves on, the crime for which they are being accused is changed to aggravated homicide".
 We could see this clearly in the case of Beatriz, whom we also supported. Doctors knew that there was a need to stop that pregnancy - a committee of 15 doctors assessed that the pregnancy had to be stopped but none dared to do it because they were afraid to be put in prison. This is why they even told Beatriz about the Prosecutors adding that she will be the first to go to prison"
 “Teresa, 28 years old and a maquila worker, with a 9 year-old son, did not know she was pregnant. She had a miscarriage and fainted. Her mother-in-law found her and took her to the hospital. They told her, "You have had an abortion. Where is the child?", and called the police. What we found in her case is that the "witness" against her was the Human Resources Manager at the maquila where Teresa worked, who said that back in January the worker had asked for leave as she was pregnant. This statement by the HR Manager is inconsistent because the abortion took place in November and there are 11 months from November to January It's simply impossible. The weight of the testimony was the witness’ credentials: her educational level and the position of power she held. There are similar things in all the other cases".