El Salvador considers partial pivot on world's worst anti-abortion law


El Salvador’s ruling party is finally challenging the country’s long-standing abortion ban which has imprisoned dozens of women for suffering miscarriages.

Congressional leaders of the leftist Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) introduced a bill on Tuesday that would allow women to access therapeutic abortions in cases where the fetus is not viable, where the mother was a victim of rape or human-trafficking, or where continuing the pregnancy would endanger the mother’s life or health.

For more than 20 years, El Salvador has enforced one of the world’s most severe anti-abortion laws, which have been used to prosecute at least 129 women for abortion-related crimes. At least 25 Salvadoran women are currently behind bars for having a miscarriage or stillbirth.

The prohibition has also led to more than 35,000 insecure clandestine abortions, according to estimates by the Citizens’ Association for the Decriminalization of Abortion, a prominent organization advocating for changes to El Salvador’s abortion laws.

The abortion ban has long been an international embarrassment to many members of the ruling FMLN, a former marxist guerrilla group that became a political party in the 1990s and came to power in 2009. Still, the leftist party has gone along with the ban for political reasons—until now.

On Tuesday, FMLN congresswoman Lorena Peña, president of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, introduced legislation to lift the absolute ban. The proposal would essentially revert the current law back to the 1998 version before the total ban was put in place.

Proponents say this change would help protect the health and human rights of Salvadoran women and girls, particularly those who are victims of sexual violence, those who face life-threatening diseases like cancer while pregnant, or those whose fetus may have severe birth defects caused by the mosquito-borne Zika virus currently sweeping across the region.

“Many women in our country are obligated to face high-risk pregnancies, in which their health and life is in danger, since they cannot count on an adequate response by the currently enforced regulations,” said Congresswoman Peña when she introduced the legislation.

Using the existing law to force women and girls to carry to term unplanned or life-threatening pregnancies, many of them the result of sexual violence, is not compatible with the “construction of an equal, just society,” Peña added.

Teen and childhood pregnancy, particularly as a result of rape, is on the rise in El Salvador. Girls between the ages of 10 and 19 accounted for 30 percent of all pregnancies in the country in 2015, according to a report by the United Nations Population Fund.

In the first eight months of 2016, an average of 11 cases of sexual violence against women were reported each day to El Salvador’s National Civilian Police (PNC), double the number of cases recorded in the same period the year before.

Without access to legal abortion, many women in desperate situations choose dangerous options. In fact, suicide is now the third most common cause of death for pregnant women overall and accounts for 57%  of the deaths of pregnant girls between the ages of 10 and 19.

Given these conditions Congresswoman Peña concluded in her remarks that the issue of abortion is “not only a moral issue, rather a public health issue and a challenge for legislators of conscience to not evade the problem and to open the debate.”

Many of the country’s largest women’s and reproductive rights groups have thrown their support behind the proposal, including the Alliance for the Health and Life of Women, which represents more than 30 human rights organizations.

But strong political opposition to the proposed legislation has quickly emerged.

The country’s leading conservative party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), has publicly announced their “total rejection” of the proposal, which they say would “open the door to a practice that violates the moral principles of Salvadoran society.”

“Abortion is not up for debate, plain and simple, it is not negotiable nor acceptable,” the ARENA party statement continued. It also claimed that the FMLN proposal is meant to create a “smokescreen” to distract from more important issues affecting the country.

ARENA wants even stricter anti-abortion laws. The party recently proposed a change to the law that would increase the maximum jail sentence for women accused of having abortions to 50 years.

Neither ARENA nor the FMLN have the 43 votes needed to pass a law without support from minority parties. The FMLN holds 31 seats, while ARENA holds 35. The minority parties, most of which are conservative and Christian, would make the deciding votes and are unlikely to support the FMLN’s call for partial decriminalization of therapeutic abortion.

“We are not going to support it,” Congressman Rodolfo Parker of the Christian Democratic Party told La Prensa Gráfica. “We feel we have enough problems in the country to be putting moral questions up for debate.”

But supporters of the FMLN proposal say they will fight for the reform despite significant opposition from a number of powerful forces.

“It is not difficult to understand that a reform like the one called for by the FMLN… has been demonized,” said Bessy Ríos, a well-known Salvadoran human rights activist. “From my trench, I’ll keep on fighting as a mother and activist because women must unite on major issues, especially when it comes to eliminating regulations that bind the bodies of women.”

Angelika Albaladejo is a freelance multimedia journalist focused on human and women’s rights, security, gender-based violence and social protest in Latin America, with an eye on U.S. policy and assistance to the region.

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