Nearly one month has passed since lawyers representing Beatriz, a 22-year-old pregnant woman suffering from lupus and renal deficiency, filed a petition to El Salvador’s Supreme Court of Justice requesting an exception to the country’s total ban on abortion. A positive ruling would allow Beatriz (not her real name), who has a young child, access to the procedure she needs to save her life. The Supreme Court has yet to make a decision on the case, despite the fact that doctors at El Salvador’s national maternity hospital determined that Beatriz’s pre-existing medical conditions mean that the threat to her life increases as her pregnancy continues.
The Salvadoran Minister of Health and the Human Rights Ombudsman both stated weeks ago that they support implementing the recommendations made by the doctors at the national maternity hospital to save Beatriz’s life. So, why the delay in the Supreme Court’s ruling? The Salvadoran constitution guarantees a secular state, yet the country’s policies on abortion reflect extremist religious views rather than best practices in public health. Not only is abortion prohibited by law in El Salvador, but women suspected of inducing an abortion (including those who miscarry naturally) may be tried for homicide and have been sentenced to as many as 30 years in prison. Doctors and other medical personnel suspected of assisting in an abortion procedure also face jail time if convicted.
There is growing concern that religious extremist and anti-choice forces within El Salvador are pressuring the court not to allow for a legal termination. In recent weeks these groups, including anti-choice NGOs and the Catholic bishops’ conference, have issued statements to the press and hit the airwaves. They claim that abortion is never medically necessary and that “the feminists” are using Beatriz’s case to decriminalize abortion across the board in El Salvador. Their callous, unfounded, and unscientific claims seek to undermine Beatriz’s case for a legal termination and to convince Salvadoran policymakers and Supreme Court justices that there is no need for an exception to the country’s absolute ban on abortion—in this case, or in any other.
It is perhaps not surprising that the Catholic bishops are influential in El Salvador, where approximately 60 percent of the population is Catholic and the Catholic Church is the only religion recognized by name in the country’s constitution. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that all Catholics in El Salvador agree with the hierarchy of their church when it comes to denying Beatriz’s request for a safe and legal abortion.
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir en El Salvador (Catholics for the Right to Decide in El Salvador, or CDD El Salvador) believes that Beatriz, like all women, should be able to terminate a pregnancy legally, safely, and promptly. CDD El Salvador is an active part of the reproductive rights movement in its country, where the group defies the stereotype that Catholics cannot, or do not, support abortion rights. In fact, the group does so, not in spite of its supporters’ Catholic beliefs, but because of them. They profess a commitment to fighting for social justice and for the life, health, and well-being of women because of the many lessons learned from our faith—among them, to maintain a preferential option for the poor, to treat those who are sick and suffering with compassion, and to respect the right of all people to choose according to the dictates of their conscience.
In a recent statement, CDD El Salvador called on the Catholic hierarchy to adhere to its own teaching, which states, “Hence man’s dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure.” To quote CDD El Salvador:
Beatriz has been informed regarding her state of health and that of the unviable fetus she is carrying. She has decided in good conscience to interrupt her pregnancy. She is choosing to save her life, a choice which is entirely valid according to the [Catholic] Code of Canon Law.
In a message likely to resonate with all Christians, CDD El Salvador urged its fellow citizens:
Let us remember what Jesus Christ said in the Gospels: the law was made for human beings; human beings are not made for the law. The law which penalizes abortion is cruel and inhuman, as it condemns many women to death and prison.
Since the petition was filed before the Supreme Court of Justice, Beatriz’s case has become known throughout the world. Amnesty International has sent a global appeal to human rights activists asking them to petition the Salvadoran government to permit the termination. United Nations officials have urged the Salvadoran government to take all necessary action to protect Beatriz’s health and life. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued emergency protective measures instructing the Salvadoran government to “adopt all necessary measures to implement the treatment recommended by the National Maternity Hospital in order to save the life, personal integrity and health” of Beatriz.
Beatriz may be Catholic, like most Salvadorans; she may be Evangelical Christian, like many others. She may be of another faith, or of no faith. Regardless of her religious beliefs, CDD El Salvador declares:
We demand respect for Beatriz’s freedom of conscience; she has freely decided to interrupt her pregnancy in order to save her life!
At a time when religious extremists around the globe have repackaged their efforts to undermine reproductive rights within a call for greater protection for religious liberty, will the Salvadoran Supreme Court of Justice respect Beatriz’s freedom of conscience? Will the justices protect her from the demands of religious extremists and affirm the secular nature of the Salvadoran state? As the days continue to tick by without a decision from the court, Beatriz’s life, which now hangs in the balance, moves closer and closer to a potentially tragic, and avoidable, end. I sincerely hope that the solidarity we are witnessing from around the world heralds the beginning of the end for all draconian anti-abortion laws.