Op-Ed: What happens when abortion is illegal in all circumstances

A woman marches in support of the decriminalization of abortion, on September 28, 2012 in San Salvador.
A woman marches in support of the decriminalization of abortion, on September 28, 2012 in San Salvador.
(Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images)
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El Salvador has one of the worst records on reproductive rights in the world. Since 1998, Article 133 of the Penal Code has made abortion illegal in all circumstances, without exception, punishable by up to eight years in prison. Sentences of up to 30 years have been handed down when a judge determined that “homicide” rather than abortion had occurred. The Alliance for Women’s Health and Life has reported that 147 El Salvadorian women were charged with crimes relating to abortion between 2000 and 2014.

Because our laws are so draconian, so tilted in favor of the rights of fetuses over those of living women, pregnant women experiencing difficulties may not feel safe in El Salvador’s hospitals. We’ve all heard about Maria Teresa Rivera, who was sentenced to 40 years in prison after she miscarried. (She was released after serving four.) We are terrified of having medical problems during pregnancy as there is an underlying presumption of guilt. So women often suffer in silence, which causes further complications.

International attention to the problem is growing and recently the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women urged El Salvador to review Article 133 and related aspects of the Penal Code, at least in cases of rape, incest, threats to the life and/or health of the pregnant woman or severe fetal impairment.


The U.N. committee stated that the country violates the basic human rights of women and girls, including their right to life, health, nondiscrimination, human dignity and the right over their own bodies.

El Salvador is one of the most dangerous countries to be a woman. We have the highest rate of femicide in the entire world.

Those who call for continued restrictions on safe and legal abortion in El Salvador fail to realize that making the procedure illegal does not reduce its prevalence. (The country’s Ministry of Health has estimated that 19,290 abortions took place between 2005 and 2008.) Lack of choice means that women tend to seek out dangerous covert methods, which put their lives at risk. These women are also reluctant to seek post-operative medical care after their abortions have taken place.

The World Health Organization estimates that 68,000 women die around the world every year as a result of unsafe and illegal abortions, and millions more are living with health complications. The vast majority of these are in the economically developing world in countries such as El Salvador.

El Salvador is not supportive of women’s rights. The power of the Catholic Church and right-wing conservatives here and throughout Latin America has meant that our laws are not secular, but are heavily influenced by subjective interpretations of religion. The Trump administration has further exacerbated the problem by making it illegal for U.S. organizations providing international aid to so much as help women access information about reproductive rights, let alone provide abortions.


El Salvador is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women. We have the highest rate of femicide in the entire world: A woman is murdered every 15 hours. A 2010 law made femicide a specific criminal category, but most perpetrators still evade arrest. The levels of gang violence and other forms of civil unrest are extremely high, and women bear the brunt of it both inside and outside our homes.

Against this horrific backdrop, there’s reason for optimism. Momentum is building for a parliamentary bill on reproductive rights that was introduced in October. It would legalize abortion in specific instances: if a woman’s life or health is in danger, if she became pregnant after being raped or trafficked, or in the case of a fetal abnormality. The Ministry of Health and even conservative groups such as the Anglican church have indicated that they may support such a law. But success is still uncertain.

Jeannette Urquilla is executive director of Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreñas por la Paz (ORMUSA), the Salvadoran partner of Donor Direct Action, an international women’s group.

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