Why the reluctance to prosecute self-declared procurers of abortion?

17 El Salvador women serving 30 years or more for allegedly ending pregnancies by using abortion pill

Pro-choice ...  members of the Bolivian feminist group ‘Mujeres Creando’ (‘Women Creating’) dressed as nuns protest  outside the Cathedral of La Paz ahead of the recent visit of Pope Francis. Photograph:   EPA/ABI Handout

Pro-choice ... members of the Bolivian feminist group ‘Mujeres Creando’ (‘Women Creating’) dressed as nuns protest outside the Cathedral of La Paz ahead of the recent visit of Pope Francis. Photograph: EPA/ABI Handout

 

On April 24th last, four campaigners sat in at the El Salvador embassy in Washington and invited the authorities to arrest them. Their aim was to highlight the plight of women in the Central American country under draconian anti-abortion laws. They highlighted the case of Guadalupe Vasquez, who, aged 17, had become pregnant as a result of rape by a neighbour of the family she was working for as a maid.

The police were reluctant to arrest the three women, including a grandmother, and a Catholic priest for their trespass. Eventually, the four having made it clear they wouldn’t leave voluntarily, they were carried off to court and fined $100 each.

In 2007, Vasquez had gone into labour alone in her room and fallen unconscious. She awoke handcuffed to a hospital bed. She hadn’t induced the miscarriage. She’d wanted the baby and had chosen a name, Gabriel. But police were convinced she had taken abortion pills.

Charged with murder, she was sentenced to 30 years. It scarcely needs saying the rapist remains free.

Women’s groups launched a vigorous campaign. The case was debated in parliament. This was a “first”, and drew media attention far beyond El Salvador. Last January, Vasquez, now 25, was freed on a suddenly-discovered technicality, having served seven years and three months. Her release emboldened right- to-choose and human rights organisations to step up efforts to free other women mired in the same circumstance.

At least 17 women – Las 17 – are serving 30 years or more for allegedly ending pregnancies by using the abortion pill. One has a sentence of 50 years. According to the Salvadoran Citizens’ Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Abortion, hundreds are serving shorter sentences.

Meanwhile, the PSNI seems as reluctant as its Washington colleagues to make arrests for abortion-related offences. In June, 215 people, 200 of them women, signed an open letter to the Public Prosecution Service admitting they had either taken abortion pills themselves or helped other women obtain or use them. They were responding to a case before the courts in which a woman is accused of supplying her pregnant daughter with “poison” – in fact, the abortion pill combination of mifepristone and misoprostol.

The woman’s name has not been revealed to protect the identity of her underage daughter.

Hesitant

So far, none of the 215 has been contacted by police. The group that gathered the signatures, Alliance for Choice, believes the authorities are hesitant to move against them for fear of catapulting the issue towards the top of news agenda and sparking wider protest.

The relevant law in the North is the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which sets down a maximum sentence of life for procuring an abortion.

An Alliance for Choice spokeswoman explains: “Hundreds and hundreds of women in Ireland have done exactly what this woman is charged with.

“They have done it for themselves or for daughters, nieces, sisters, friends. This is all happening in the shadows, but it is a part of Irish life. It shouldn’t be seen as shameful or the women regarded as criminals.”

Official figures for Irish abortions are falling, from around 2,000 in the North in 2001 to fewer than a thousand in 2013, and from 6,673 to 3,679 in the Republic in the same period. The statistics are notoriously unreliable, many women giving false addresses at clinics outside the jurisdictions. But the general trend is clear. The networks delivering the pills say the main reason is the widening availability of the mifepristone/misoprostol combination.

It is worth noting that the one country in Central America that might challenge El Salvador for the harshness of its abortion law is Nicaragua. Both have left-wing governments widely admired by many in Ireland and elsewhere who see themselves as progressive.

Women’s rights

The FMLN (El Salvador) and the Sandinistas (Nicaragua) emerged from armed struggles against US-supported far-right militias. Both loudly advertised their commitment to women’s rights. But in office they have bowed the knee to avoid the wrath of the Catholic Church.

Women’s rights are fine things, but not as fine as being in government.

The priest involved in the Washington sit-in was Fr Roy Bourgeois. He served as a soldier in Vietnam before joining the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in 1970. In 2012, the Vatican informed him of his “excommunication, dismissal and laicisation” for persisting in preaching in churches for women’s ordination.

A number of bishops have been reduced to the ranks for complicity in sexual abuse of children. But none has been excommunicated, dismissed or laicised.

A writer in the National Catholic Register commented: “What’s glaringly clear is what’s tolerable and what’s not in an all-male celibate culture.”

It is just as clear that only women rising up in defiance of oppressive law can secure lasting change.

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