El Salvador Continues to Imprison Women Who Miscarry

08/05/2014 14:48 BST | Updated 07/07/2014 10:59 BST

Restrictions on abortion laws in El Salvador continue to tighten as feminist and pro-choice groups launch a campaign to officially pardon 17 women who have been convicted of aggravated homicide. The women, who remain anonymous were convicted after receiving treatment at public hospitals after failed pregnancies.

Whilst the majority of countries have liberalised their laws on abortion in the last 30 years, a handful of countries including El Salvador have tightened them. El Salvador is one of five Latin American countries, along with Honduras, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and Chile, that does not allow any form of abortion, regardless of circumstance. The country is notoriously known for its high crime rates and relentless gangs and government policies are often mixed with those of the Catholic Church - who played a key role in pushing for the ban.

Earlier this month campaigners held protests in the streets of the country's capital San Salvador and organised a procession in solidarity with the women at the IIapongu's women's centre, where the women are being held. The organistations have also petitioned the Salvadorian Congress and have filed an appeal under the Special Law for Appeals of Grace, which is permitted to grant pardons if all three state powers (legislative, judicial and executive) approve.

Legislators in El Salvador have been merciless in their cases against each women, who are in many cases housewives, maids and students. Previously the law permitted an abortion to be performed in certain circumstances, however, in 1998, all exceptions were removed as a new law came into effect. Under the new law all three forms of previously allowed abortion were criminalised; therapeutic, where pregnancy endangers the life of a woman; eugenic, where the fetus is not viable due to deformity and other similar problems and ethical, where the child was conceived through incest or rape. In 1999, the country´s constitution was amended to recognise the right of life from the moment of conception.

In this devoutly Catholic country the impact of this ban barely registered as a national issue until last year when there was international condemnation at the supreme court´s refusal to authorise a medical abortion to a 22-year-old, known as Beatriz, whose life was considered at risk. Beatriz, a pseudonym, a lupus sufferer, made an emotion appeal to the Salvadorian president asking for a termination after doctors said that her pregnancy posed a risk to her health. Furthermore, her scans revealed that her baby had anencephaly, a condition which meant that part of the fetus´ brain was missing and that it would not survive birth.

Beatriz was eventually granted a caesarean section to save her life at 27 weeks, though the baby died within hours.

As the case of Beatriz became an international talking point, Jose Luis Escobar, archbishop of San Salvador reportedly stated that it would be "against nature" for Beatriz to have an abortion and that any reform to the law would lead to "the scalpel killing babies."

Such fervent opposition to abortion is nothing new in such a pro-life continent. However, what makes El Salvador stand out to human right activists is the severe sentences and the way the state polices the ban, especially when access to healthcare in rural parts of the country is limited.

Human rights activists argue that this has created cycle of persecution in hospitals and courts, where women - in particularly poor, young women who may lose their babies- are all suspects.

Morena Herrea, who heads the Decriminalisation of Therapeutic, Ethical and Eugenic Abortion NGO, has stated previously that what binds all the women accused of aggravated homicide is crippling poverty and has added that the stigma surrounding abortion makes it difficult for people to speak out.

"People are afraid of ... being pointed out in church, in their community, even in their family sometimes," she has stated. "Some people think we are defending abortion, not the rights of women. They think we don't like kids. Sometimes there are situations of threats."

ACDATEE, a Salvadorian womens group, estimates that following the ban, up to 130 women may have aced the courts. However, in a state where abortion is criminalised, there are no statistics on the number of women who seek illegal abortions or how many may have died as a result.