El Salvador Court Denies Seriously Ill Woman Potentially Life-Saving Abortion

The fetus stands practically no chance of survival.

Pro-choice activists demonstrate outside the Supreme Court in San Salvador, on May 15, 2013.
Photo Credit: AFP

El Salvador’s Supreme Court has denied a seriously ill woman a potentially life-saving abortion, even though her fetus stands practically no chance of survival.

Doctors say the 22-year-old woman, who uses the name “Beatriz” to protect her privacy, could face severe medical problems if she does not receive an immediate abortion. Beatriz has lupus, and her continued pregnancy could lead to hemorrhaging, kidney failure and even maternal death.

Medical tests confirmed that the fetus has anencephaly, meaning that it is missing large parts of its skull and brain. In virtually all cases, fetuses with anencephaly do not survive for more than a few hours or days after delivery.

El Salvador, a predominently Catholic nation, has one of the strictest abortion laws in the world. It is one of five countries with absolute abortion bans, even in cases of rape, incest or when the life of a pregnant woman is in jeopardy.

In a 4-1 decision, the nation’s highest court ruled that it is sticking to the “absolute impediment to authorize the practice of abortion,” adding that “the rights of the mother cannot be privileged over those” of the fetus. The court noted Beatriz’s lupus, but maintained that the threat to her life “is not actual or imminent, but rather eventual.” The ruling stated that if her life became in immediate danger, than doctors could proceed with action.

Beatriz’s case has become a high-profile battle in El Salvador, pitting international organizations, as well as human rights, feminist and pro-choice groups against the nation’s powerful Catholic lobby. As Feministing’s Katie Halper noted, “Both the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission as well as Amnesty InternationalCare2Human Rights Watch and RH Reality Check called on the president to intervene and the Supreme Court to grant Beatriz an abortion.”

Beatriz’s lawyer called the decision, “misogynistic,” telling theNew York Timesthat,“The court placed the life of the anencephalic baby over Beatriz’s life.” The 22-year-old’s attorney, Víctor Hugo Mata, added that, “Justice here does not respect the rights of women.”

The case represents a step back for women’s rights in the region, which has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts provides context:

The case has had regional ramifications. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urged the El Salvadorian government to take "precautionary measures" by approving an abortion.

Most Latin American countries prohibit abortion, but there have been relaxations in several countries. Uruguay recently legalised first trimester interventions, while Colombia, Brazil and Argentina allow abortion in rape and other extenuating circumstances.

However San Salvador has moved in the opposite direction. Until 1997, abortion would have been permissible in a case such as Beatriz's, but the prohibition was tightened that year by the Nationalist Republican Alliance party in a bid to win votes from the powerful Catholic lobby.

Steven Hsieh is an editorial assistant at AlterNet and writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @stevenjhsieh.

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