This past month, the world has been watching a 22-year-old pregnant woman in El Salvador die, little by little. I want to say it is like watching an accident happen in slow motion, but this situation is no accident. El Salvador’s government is deliberately denying lifesaving treatment to the woman, for no reason other than that she is pregnant.
At first I couldn’t understand why.
I am not trying to be naive. I know that abortion is criminalized in all circumstances in El Salvador, and that the government therefore can hide behind the law to justify denying Beatriz (a pseudonym) medical treatment. I also know that El Salvador is a predominantly Catholic country, and that church officials are very active in the country’s political life, in particular on this issue.
But this same constellation of facts has not prevented select women in similar situations from getting access to the services they need in other countries in the region. Over the years, I have interviewed a small handful of women in Latin America who needed abortions to protect their health and lives. In most cases, after an initial negotiation with the public health ministry or prosecutor, the intervention went through on the dual condition that it got registered as “appendicitis” in the woman’s medical record, and that the women didn’t tell anyone about it. It didn’t much matter if abortion was legal or illegal in the countries where each case happened—the main motivation for allowing the intervention for the prosecutors and other public officials involved was to avoid negative publicity.
Because it doesn’t look good for El Salvador’s government officials. Sure, they are following the law. But they are also watching a woman die. And for what? The fetus Beatriz is carrying does not have a forebrain, and is likely to survive only scant hours after birth, if that. Human rights officials from the United Nations have publicly called out the situation as counter to El Salvador’s international obligations, and international media are portraying the government as “not moving a finger.”
The only reasonable explanation for the public stand-off is that Beatriz and other resource-poor women are politically expendable, and that crossing the Catholic Church is seen as worse than being hung out in the press as inhumane.
It wouldn’t be the first time poor women pay with their health and lives for politics. In Nicaragua, a mere ten days before the 2006 presidential election, the parliament voted to eliminate the possibility for legal abortion when a woman’s life is threatened by her pregnancy. Members of the Sandinista party were reportedly told to vote for the change, with the promise that it would be “fixed” after their candidate had won the election. And during the Pope’s 2007 visit to Brazil, then-President Lula publicly announced his opposition to abortion.
Let us be clear: the Catholic Church, and any other religious group or civil society organization, has the right to try and influence policies and further its agenda within the limits of the law. But governments owe everyone the same rights, regardless of faith, sex, family status, or ability to pay for votes or medical treatment. In the recent ruling, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights stated that governments cannot implement laws in a manner that reflects only one particular religion, as this would infringe on the rights of those who do not share that faith.
Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to the laws that criminalize abortion, even where the pregnant woman’s health or life is compromised. Not all visions of Catholicism require a woman to die for the sake of her pregnancy. And even if they did, it is Beatriz’s faith, wishes, and life the law must uphold.
I don’t understand what El Salvador’s government has to gain from watching this young woman die a preventable death. And I don’t understand how we can continue to allow this to happen.