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Defying El Salvador’s total ban on abortion

    Wednesday, January 21, 2015 - 08:05

    Recently, the Salvadoran authorities refused to pardon Guadalupe, a young woman currently serving a 30-year jail sentence after suffering a miscarriage. One of her chief advocates is Morena Herrera. Here, the ex-freedom fighter, staunch feminist and sexual and reproductive rights campaigner tells us why El Salvador’s abortion ban needs to go.

    “I was a guerrilla fighter. I was an activist for social change since I was young,” says Morena Herrera. When the civil war ended in 1992 and the Peace Accords were signed, she knew that the fight was far from over.

    “Those accords left big holes when it came to women’s rights,” she says. “I realized I had to fight another way. Women’s rights are human rights and they have to be a priority.”

    Since 2009, Morena has been fighting “another way” through the Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, a collective she heads today.

    Infamous among the women the group has defended are Beatriz, who nearly died because she was refused a termination of an unviable pregnancy that was threatening her life, and the group of 17 women, including Guadalupe mentioned above, who are currently appealing against convictions for pregnancy-related “offences”.

    These women have all had their lives devastated by El Salvador’s brutal ban on abortion.

    Acids and hooks

    It wasn’t always like this. Before 1997, abortion was permitted in three exceptional cases: if a woman’s life was at risk, in cases of rape, and in cases of foetal abnormality.

    “In those days,” says Morena, “you could have an abortion on the hush and you wouldn’t be prosecuted or persecuted. Some women would resort to acids and hooks to abort, because abortion was still illegal outside those exceptions. But when things went wrong, they could go to the hospital and receive treatment without the fear of arrest.”

    But, after 1997, El Salvador’s penal code was amended and abortion was banned completely, and a culture of incriminating women increased.

    “Today, women who go to hospital with bleeding after a miscarriage are immediately accused,” says Morena. “Even without investigation of the facts, they are accused and indicted. In some cases, the offence of abortion is changed to aggravated homicide. And then the sentences are draconian, ranging from 30 to 50 years in jail.”

    Impossible choices

    Against this backdrop, Morena admits that the work she does with the Citizen’s Group is hard.

    “One day I had a phone call. A student had been bleeding in the bathroom at school,” she recalls. “I told a colleague to take her to a private hospital. She had been raped outside the university [and became pregnant], but didn’t tell anyone. She got pills made from caustic soda. The pills destroyed the walls of her arteries – but she was still pregnant. For us, the dilemma is, do we prefer to see this person dead or in jail? This is our everyday reality. It’s harrowing.”

    Unwanted pregnancy is a harrowing reality for all too many young women and girls in El Salvador. As Morena points out, 36% of hospital births in the country are to girls aged 9 to 18 years. With no proper sex education, limited access to contraception and a total ban on abortion, youngsters are left with no way out – apart from clandestine abortions (“35,000 a year”) or suicide (accounting for 57% of teen deaths in pregnancy).

    “I’m the mother of four daughters, three of whom are from different fathers,” she says. “I personally know the distress felt when you have an unwanted pregnancy. I only made a conscious choice with my fourth child. All children should come into the world this way.”

    Challenges

    Morena and her colleagues not only face legal challenges, but social ones as well.

    “People say we are committing a crime by raising awareness, supporting women and advocating on their behalf and we respond by saying we are fighting to change an unfair law. That can’t be illegal. We don’t accept that,” she says.

    “We have received threats and there have been stories in the press and on TV that have been very stigmatising.”

    This is where Amnesty International can play a positive role. “When Amnesty came to El Salvador and launched its report it gave us some peace of mind. We’re not crazy! We have support. The most important thing is that Amnesty reaches other governments and asks them to put pressure on El Salvador. Our voices are sometimes not heard, so that would help us a lot.”

    Successes

    Amid the many setbacks, there are always successes. Morena remembers the first woman the Citizen’s Group helped free.

    “She was a mother of three who had been sentenced to 30 years in jail,” recalls Morena. “We found out about the case from an article in the New York Times and started to investigate. I have the same surname as her so I could get into the prison as family. She told me what had happened. We examined the case files and with the help of forensic doctors from Argentina, Guatemala and Spain we were able to show there had been a mistake in her trial, a judicial error. We spent four years campaigning for her release.”

    When they finally freed her, Morena was ecstatic. “I spent three days smiling,” she says. “It was very satisfying. And after a while she too started to defend the rights of other women.”

    Join My Body My Rights, Amnesty’s global campaign to defend sexual and reproductive rights. Although “Guadalupe’s” pardon was denied, it’s up for another Parliamentary vote on January 21. Take action for her now.