El Faro published an article last week discussing the United Nations’ appeal to El Salvador that it amend its laws to accommodate safe access to abortions. The United Nations’ Human Rights Committee issued a report last Thursday asking El Salvador to decriminalize abortion and revamp its dismal record of women’s rights violations. The report emphasizes, “El Salvador is one of the only five countries in the Latin America that maintains an absolute prohibition on abortion, including under circumstances when pregnancy endangers the women’s life.”
El Salvador’s laws restricting abortion have become increasingly restrictive in the last two decades. Until 1998, abortion was illegal except in cases of rape, incest, fetal anomaly, and when the mother’s life or health was at risk. Starting in 1998, El Salvador instituted a series of reforms restricting women’s access to reproductive service. Chapter II of El Salvador’s revised Penal Code now “penalizes women who induce their own abortions or give their consent to someone else to induce an abortion; doctors, pharmacists or other health care workers who practice abortions; persons who encourage a woman to have an abortion or provide the financial means to obtain an abortion; and persons who unintentionally cause an abortion.” The penalty ranges from two to eight years in prison. In 1999 the constitution was amended to define a human being “from the moment of conception.” Although El Salvador is party to many international treaties guaranteeing women’s and children’s rights, and although El Salvador’s constitution grants recognition to these treaties and conventions as equal in status to national law, the country continues to restrict women’s reproductive rights.
The UN report also highlights the concern over violence against women and girls in the country, including rape and sexual violence, which it characterized as “pervasive and widespread.” The report “demonstrates how El Salvador’s complete ban on abortion health services directly violates of women’s and young girls rights to equality, life, liberty, health and be free from torture. Furthermore, it violates every woman’s right to receive medical attention while preserving patient confidentiality, which is violated by medical personal that have been pressured by the police to report these incidents.”
A blog article in yesterday’s Ms. Magazine touched on the concerns over the links between restricting reproductive rights and increased violence against women when discussing the case of Irma Medrano, a Salvadoran woman who fled the country in 1995 and settled in California. She has been living with her sister and hoped to escape the dangers of her abusive husband back in El Salvador, whom police investigators refused to investigate citing the violence as a private matter. Although the Obama Administration has previously recognized fear of domestic violence as a justification for asylum, Ms. Medrano is currently in the process of being deported back to El Salvador despite word that her husband will be looking for her once she arrives.
Access to abortion became a subject of public debate earlier this year after Maria Evelyn Martinez, Director of the Salvadoran Institute for Women (Idesmu, for its name in Spanish), ratified the Consensus of Brazil without the President’s explicit consent. The Consensus was developed during the 11th Regional Conference for Women in Latin America in the Caribbean, an event sponsored by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the United Nations, which took place on the 16th of July in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Consensus calls for greater protection of women’s rights, and asks that all signing countries reconsider any laws that punish a woman for seeking an abortion and promise safe and secure access to abortion where it is permitted by law. By ratifying the Consensus, Ms. Martinez agreed that El Salvador would revisit its strict anti-abortion laws. Her action is widely unpopular and was harshly criticized before being overturned by President Funes.
Martinez signed the document with the understanding that she was authorized to participate fully in the forum using only her own judgment. In the governing laws of Idesmu it specifically states that the director is authorized to “create, circulate, and promote effective compliance with the agreements ratified by El Salvador in relation to the improvement of women’s quality of life” (Idesmu Charter). Given this language, Ms. Martinez felt that she was able to sign on behalf of the nation without the President’s specific approval.
However, in a public statement in late August, Funes criticized Martinez’ actions and said that he has “never given any consent for the revision of the country’s laws.” He continued, “the national constitution states that life begins at the moment of conception, and as long as this constitution is in effect we must respect its laws” (El Faro). He also stated that he would communicate with the coordinating bodies of the Consensus of Brazil to inform them that Ms. Martinez was not authorized to sign the document and that El Salvador would be withdrawing its signature from this aspect of the agreement.
Ms. Martinez has defended her actions by pointing out that this is the fifth time she has signed an international document calling for the revision of El Salvador’s abortion laws, but no President (including Funes) has ever criticized these decisions in the past.
Official responses to the event were mixed. Many FMLN representatives have asked for improved communication and coherency between government offices so that misunderstandings like this one can be avoided in the future. The Vice-minister of Health, Violeta Menjivar, and the second in command for the FMLN Legislative group, Norma Guevara, openly expressed their disappointment at the President’s refusal to reconsider the law. El Faro took this opportunity to conduct an in-depth interview with Ms. Martinez, questioning her about her role as Director of Idesmu and her personal beliefs. Archibisop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas, publicly announced his support for President Funes’ decision to uphold the constitution.
In contrast, public response to the event has been overwhelmingly consistent, with almost all Salvadorans opposing any changes to this aspect of the constitution. El Diario de Hoy polled public opinion on the issue and found surprisingly homogenous results: 93% of respondents said they were against modifying the constitution to allow abortion; 76% support Funes’ decision to modify El Salvador’s commitment to the Consensus of Brazil, and 32.7% believe that Ms. Martinez is “mentally ill” for signing the document.
With such an overwhelming public response and the clear agreement of the President it seems unlikely that El Salvador will seriously reconsider its abortion laws anytime soon. El Salvador remains one of only 3 countries in the world that have increased restrictions to abortion care in the last 50 years; regulation in every other country has stayed the same or become more lenient over time.