Global Justice Center Blog

Lessons from Beatriz: El Salvador & the Denial of Life-Saving Abortions Worldwide

“I don’t want to die,” Beatriz said.[1]

Beatriz is a 22-year-old Salvadoran woman who was recently denied the right to an abortion during her high-risk and potentially fatal pregnancy. Her court case has captured international attention, bringing to light the staunch anti-abortion policies of El Salvador and in other areas of Latin America, and around the world, even in life-threatening circumstances.

Beatriz suffers from lupus and other medical complications which worsened during her first pregnancy. Her doctors at the National Maternity Hospital claimed that with the progression of the 26-week pregnancy, Beatriz’s risk of hemorrhaging, kidney failure and maternal death would increase exponentially. Additionally, the fetus had a birth defect called anencephaly, in which a baby develops without parts of its brain and faces very little chance of survival. As a result, Beatriz sought an abortion for the sake of her health and the well-being of her young child at home that she must care for. The Government of El Salvador denied her an abortion despite her, her doctors’, and the international community’s entreaties. On May 29, El Salvador’s Supreme Court upheld the Government’s decision to deny her an abortion, based upon its reading of the country’s abortion ban, which was an “absolute impediment to authorize the practice of abortion.” The court claimed that “the rights of the mother cannot be privileged over those” of the fetus.[2]

After the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) promptly responded and demanded that the government “immediately adopt the necessary measures to protect the life, personal integrity and health” of Beatriz.[3] In addition, the IACHR held that “the Salvadoran State is obligated to ‘guarantee that the treating medical team has the … protection to fully exercise its function according to the decisions that, based on medical science, said medical team should adopt.’”[4] Such protection of medical personnel—granting them the freedom to make decisions based solely upon medical ethics rather than political considerations—guarantees better outcomes for female patients facing dangerous pregnancies, as it permits medical personnel to prioritize the patient’s welfare above all else. This mandate is also found under international humanitarian law, to protect doctors who provide life-saving abortions in humanitarian settings from prosecution under local criminal abortion laws.

On May 30, El Salvador’s Ministry of Health overrode the Supreme Court’s decision. María Isabel Rodríguez, the Salvadoran Minister of Health, announced that Beatriz would be allowed to end her pregnancy “at the first sign of danger” through an induced birth.[3] As a result, on June 3, Beatriz underwent a Cesarean section. Her daughter was born without a brain, and died five hours later.[5]While the decision of the Ministry of Health should be applauded for having saved the life of one woman, it does not do the necessary work of challenging El Salvador’s strict ban on abortion. The law must be changed so that other Salvadoran girls and women with dangerous pregnancies are not forced into the same suffering, uncertainty, and risk of death as Beatriz faced.

While many countries in Latin America, like Uruguay, Mexico City, Colombia, Brazil and Argentina have relaxed their highly conservative abortion laws, other nations including Chile and Nicaragua continue to maintain misogynistic and repressive restrictions on women’s reproductive rights.[6]Beatriz is one example of thousands of women across Latin America – and the world – who are denied access to safe abortions, even in cases of high risk pregnancies or pregnancies resulting from rape.

Shockingly, the United States, too, perpetuates this inhuman policy, by denying access to safe abortions for girls and women raped in war. This violates the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law (IHL).

Here’s how this US policy violates the Geneva Conventions: The 1973 Helms Amendment places a blanket abortion ban on all US humanitarian aid, even for girls and women who are brutally raped as a weapon of war, and those who face potentially fatal health risks.

The Global Justice Center sent a petition, and has organized a letter-writing campaign, to President Obama and continues to take action to ensure girls and women are guaranteed the nondiscriminatory medical care that is their absolute right under IHL. Bans on abortion maintain a society in which women and girls possess rights to health and life that are less than those of men and boys. It is clear that, as one of Beatriz’s lawyers, Victor Hugo Mata, said: “Justice here does not respect the rights of women.”[2] Action must be taken to change these oppressive policies in El Salvador, the United States and around the world.

[1]Zabludovsky, Karla. “A Salvadoran at Risk Tests Abortion Law.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 May 2013. Web. 04 June 2013. available athttp://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/29/world/americas/pregnant-sick-and-pressing-salvadoran-abortion-law.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0&ref=americas

[2]Palumbo, Gene and Karla Zabludovsky. “Salvadoran Court Denies Abortion to Ailing Woman.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 May 2013. Web. 04 June 2013. available at  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/30/world/americas/salvadoran-court-denies-abortion-to-ailing-woman.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0

[3]Zabludovsky, Karla. “WORLD BRIEFING | THE AMERICAS; El Salvador: Doctors Can Induce Birth to Save Woman, Official Says.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 May 2013. Web. 04 June 2013. available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/31/world/americas/el-salvador-doctors-can-induce-birth-to-save-woman-official-says.html?src=recg

[4]Center for Justice and International Law, “Inter-American Court of Human Rights orders the Salvadoran State to interrupt the pregnancy of ‘Beatriz,’” May 30, 2013, available athttp://cejil.org/en/comunicados/inter-american-court-human-rights-orders-salvadoran-state-perform-a-therapeutic-abortion.

[5]Al Jazeera, “El Salvador abortion row baby dies,”June 4, 2013,http://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2013/06/20136494818222545.html.

[6]Groll, Elias. “El Salvador’s ‘Beatriz’ and the Politics of Abortion in Latin America.”Web log post.Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy, 31 May 2013. Web. 2 June 2013. available athttp://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/05/31/el_salvador_beatriz_politics_abortion_latin_america

Tags: Abortion, Non-Discrimination, Sexual Violence & Rape, Geneva Conventions, International Humanitarian Law, Helms Amendment, US Abortion Restrictions, USAID, Gender Equality, Reproductive Rights, August 12th, Abortion Access in Conflict