Salvadoran woman refused abortion that can save her life

22-year-old Beatriz waiting awaits Supreme Court decision, sparking fierce debate in country that does not allow abortion in any circumstances

A woman in El Salvador is waiting for the country’s supreme court to decide if she can have the abortion that doctors say is needed to save her life in a case that has drawn parallels with that of Savita Halappanavar.

The 22-year-old woman known only as Beatriz is four months pregnant and has been diagnosed with lupus, a disease that causes the immune system to attack the body’s own cells and tissue.

Her doctors warn that the disease has damaged her kidneys and she runs a high risk of dying if the pregnancy continues. They say scans also show that the foetus is anencephalic – missing a large part of its brain – and would not survive long after birth.

Beatriz says she is seeking the right to terminate her pregnancy so she can raise her 14-month-old son.


Jail terms
But El Salvador does not allow abortion in any circumstances, even when the life of the mother is at risk, with doctors facing up to 50 years in jail for carrying out the procedure.

There are 19 women in El Salvador serving sentences for having terminated their pregnancies, according to women’s rights groups.

Beatriz’s request to the supreme court for an abortion has sparked a fierce debate among the state’s medical authorities as well as between anti-abortion and pro-choice advocates.

Her case is backed by the country’s health ministry but the Institute of Legal Medicine, the medical arm of the judiciary, has contradicted the diagnosis of Beatriz’s doctors, saying it did not see any problem with her kidneys or “an imminent risk of death”.

That drew a withering response from El Salvador’s health minister, María Isabel Rodríguez, who said doctors did not say she was at risk of imminent death but “with every day that passes the pregnancy is exposing this person to risks which could provoke her death”.

A group of human rights authorities from the UN called on El Salvador’s government “to take all necessary measures to ensure the protection and full enjoyment of the right to life and to the highest attainable standard of health for Beatriz, in accordance with international human rights law”.

Led by the Catholic Church, anti-abortion groups have accused pro-choice activists of promoting the case of Beatriz to create a breach in El Salvador’s strict anti-abortion laws.

The archbishop of the capital, San Salvador, accused a “movement and agenda” of being behind Beatriz’s petition. “I can already see the scalpel killing babies tomorrow because they opened a door,” said José Luis Escobar Alas in a press conference at the city’s cathedral.

In 1973 El Salvador legalised so-called “therapeutic” abortion for when pregnancy endangered the life of the mother as well as in cases of rape or if the foetus was detected with a severe congenital disorder.

Blanket ban
But a right-wing government changed the law in 1998 to ban abortion in all circumstances. El Salvador is one of just a handful of countries which includes neighbour Nicaragua, Malta and the Vatican City to have a blanket ban on the procedure.

After a meeting with feminist groups in March 2008, then left-wing presidential candidate Mauricio Funes – who backed the decision by Mexico City to decriminalise abortion in 2007 – said the question of "therapeutic" abortion needed to be re-examined, raising hopes among pro-choice activists.

But he was forced into a swift reversal just 13 days later after the then archbishop of San Salvador demanded that all presidential candidates state clearly their position on abortion. Seeking to become the first left-wing president in almost 80 years in the Catholic-majority country, Mr Funes backtracked, saying he was against decriminalisation. He has maintained that position since his victory in 2009 despite support for decriminalisation within his party.

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America