A couple of nights ago, I tweeted an article—which inspired a blog post—about the dramatic rise in murders reported by the Salvadoran government in the last year. The alarming spike in killings is, at least in part, connected with the end of a peace truce established in 2012 between the country’s most powerful gangs. Since the pact fell apart in March, violence exploded and increasingly seems beyond the control of the government to do anything about it.
Katha Pollitt quickly replied to my tweet remarking, sarcastically, that “at least El Salvador prosecutes women who have abortions, or miscarriages someone thinks are abortions. Pro-life!” Katha’s quip offered a useful reminder that gangs aren’t the only source of violent crisis in the country. The nation’s constitution, which strictly prohibits abortion in every instance, has led to appalling violence against women—to their bodies and their rights.
To get a sense of the degree to which women are under assault in El Salvador, consider this. By law, women and girls who are discovered to have had abortions face are subject to prison sentences, according to Amnesty International. Even more disturbing, “women who have had miscarriages have been charged with aggravated homicide, a charge which can bring a sentence of up to fifty years in prison.” Faced with such punitive possibilities in the case of an unwanted pregnancy, it’s little wonder that suicide accounts for more than half of all deaths of pregnant women in El Salvador between the ages of “ten and nineteen in El Salvador, though it is likely many more cases have gone unreported.”
Last fall, the issue came before the United Nations Human Rights Council. A dozen countries—the United States noticeably not among them—publicly urged El Salvador to amend its constitution in order to meet its basic human rights obligations under international law. To hear human rights groups describe it, the moment had come when El Salvador could no longer ignore international outrage at its abortion policy. But it did. The attempt at naming and shaming at the UN didn’t have much effect.
A new effort is underway right now to get Secretary of State John Kerry to raise the issue formally with the Salvadoran government. Specifically, a petition from the reproductive rights group RH Reality Check and the Salvadoran Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion has been circulating urging Kerry to press for the pardon of seventeen women currently facing up to forty years in prison after being charged with aggravated homicide for “provoking abortions.” So far, over twelve thousand people have signed.
While these important campaigns have succeeded in bringing greater attention to the issue internationally, they’re unlikely to have much effect on policy. Pressuring the government through diplomatic channels sets sight on the wrong target. When it comes to abortion policy in El Salvador, the most powerful actor in play is the Catholic Church. And at a moment when the country’s president, Salvador Sálvador Cerén—who recently won office by a whisker—is especially weak, it’s highly unlikely the government will take on the clergy on this front. Thus, alternative approaches to getting the Salvadoran constitution amended need to be imagined.
Coordinated pressure on Pope Francis to take action on the issue might be the better strategy at the moment. Francis has had quite a year, seeming keen to both burnish his progressive bona fides and shake things up with the Church. Sadly, while Francis has taken forward looking positions on the environment, economic equality, and corruption within the clergy, and appears to be the mastermind behind the recent US-Cuba détente, abortion is an issue about which he remains deeply conservative. The pope’s public posture on abortion rights could change, though.
With a growing number of Catholics worldwide sharply diverging from the Church’s official stance on the issue of abortion and contraception, the Pope may feel emboldened to begin shifting course. He has indicated the possibility himself. In an interview given shortly after becoming pope, Francis told a Jesuit newspaper officially sanctioned by the Vatican that on issues of abortion, contraception, and homosexuality, among others, “We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
In the meantime, the situation remains dire for women in El Salvador. The total constitutional ban on abortions hasn’t just codified widespread rights violations, but created a public health crisis. Confronted with unwanted pregnancies, and without recourse to proper medical attention, countless women are forced to have a baby they don’t want or secretively undergo alternative, and often very dangerous, abortions. According to Amnesty, “Common methods used by women and girls to terminate a pregnancy include: ingesting rat poison or other pesticides, and thrusting knitting needles, pieces of wood and other sharp objects into the cervix.” In the process, more than ten percent of them die.
Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.