Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Women's Health

EL SALVADOR: Lawmakers Against Therapeutic Abortion

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Jun 16 2008 (IPS) - The Salvadoran parliament has given its support to a "Libro de la vida" (Book of Life), which calls abortion "an abominable crime," precipitating a storm of criticism from women’s organisations that consider this blanket endorsement an evasion of serious debate on the issue.

The activists also say parliament’s decision runs counter to international conventions on women’s rights that El Salvador has ratified.

"These actions close the door on healthy debate on the crude and persistent reality" that this country is attempting to avoid, said Ima Guirola of the Institute of Women’s Studies (CEMUJER).

Guirola said that the question "is not whether one is in favour of or against abortion, but what the state is going to do" about this practice which is carried out illegally in unsafe conditions.

Health authorities do not have estimates of the number of illegal abortions performed in this impoverished Central American country of nearly six million people.

The stance taken by parliament will not contribute to "the formulation of public policies" in favour of women, Guirola told IPS.

The "Libro de la vida" is a declaration by Honduran lawmaker Marta Lorena Alvarado, which won the support of the Honduran Congress and was brought to El Salvador by the Catholic Church hierarchy, evangelical churches and the conservative Fundación Sí a la Vida (Yes to Life Foundation), which oppose the legalisation of therapeutic abortion.

The controversial document has been signed by about 100 Honduran lawmakers, and its promoters hope that some 150 of their Guatemalan peers will soon do likewise.

In El Salvador it was signed by the vast majority of the 84 members of the legislature, including, unexpectedly, members of the leftwing opposition Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which for years has backed women’s groups’ attempts to reopen the debate on decriminalising therapeutic abortion. Their U-turn has earned them harsh criticism.

Socorro Gross, the representative in Nicaragua of the Pan American Health Organisation/World Health Organisation (PAHO/WHO) said at a forum on Medical and Legal Aspects of Therapeutic Abortion there that "therapeutic abortion is a universal principle accepted by most of the United Nations member countries, and transcends cultural, religious and ideological differences.

"Forbidding termination of pregnancy when the life of the mother is in danger does not reduce the number of unsafe abortions in a country," she said.

"To discuss the legality or otherwise of terminating a pregnancy when the mother’s life is threatened is not an issue for women alone, but for society as a whole," the PAHO representative said.

Therapeutic abortion refers to the termination of a pregnancy when the mother’s life is at risk, the foetus is deformed, or the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape.

Of the 18 million pregnancies a year that occur in Latin America and the Caribbean, it is estimated that 52 percent are unplanned, and that 21 percent of these end in abortions.

Paradoxically, the Salvadoran parliament signed the anti-abortion document this month while the Second Ibero-American Conference on Gender, attended by more than 20 women ministers and policy-makers in charge of gender equity mechanisms, was being held in the country.

At this meeting it was agreed to "encourage the formulation and application of public policies with a gender perspective in the field of sexual and reproductive health in accordance with the interests of young people," to prevent teen pregnancies.

Raquel Caballero, assistant prosecutor for the rights of women and the family in the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights (PDDH), acknowledges that "abortion is a very sensitive subject." She said her office "defends life as a constitutionally guaranteed right," but added that in some "extreme cases" there is a "conflict of rights" between the mother and the unborn child.

When the foetus "develops outside the uterus" in an ectopic pregnancy, "there is less than one percent probability of the pregnancy reaching term," and then "the rights of the mother and of the foetus, which has little hope of being born but which seriously threatens the mother’s life," must be weighed against each other, she said.

FMLN lawmaker Enma Julia Fabián, who did not sign the book, said that her party "is in favour of life, which goes far beyond the issue of abortion," and her fellow party members who signed it had not thereby renounced "the party’s position on supporting women’s sexual and reproductive rights."

She said, however, that the initiative is a ploy by "the Central American right, which has made it into an electoral issue, but won’t be allowed to turn it into a campaigning instrument against the FMLN."

She denied that her party’s acquiescence in signing the document was "an electoral move," although in her view, "it should act in accordance with the circumstances."

For months, conservative media outlet have been accusing the FMLN of being pro-abortion and of attacking religious values, just at a time when this party is leading opinion polls in the run-up to next year’s elections.

A reform of the Salvadoran criminal code in 1998 reclassified abortion as a crime carrying sentences of between two and 10 years in prison, depending on the circumstances, for both the pregnant woman and the health professional who assists her.

El Salvador has ratified the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action arising from the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in the Chinese capital in 1995, as well as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and participates in regional initiatives on mechanisms for protecting women’s rights.

"Signing that document was like sweeping the problem under the carpet," said Guirola, who argued that there was no doubt that this was an example of the "double standards and patriarchal views" that predominate in Salvadoran society.

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