Abortion ban: El Salvador frees women jailed after miscarriages

The women had been jailed for terms ranging from six to 13 years under some of the region’s harshest anti-abortion laws.

Women's rights campaigners have been urging El Salvador to change its laws under which a woman can be sent to jail for eight years for ending a pregnancy [File: Salvador Melendez/AP Photo]

Authorities in El Salvador have freed three women who spent between six and 13 years in jail under the country’s harsh anti-abortion laws after suffering miscarriages, a rights group has reported.

The women had lost their fetuses due to “health emergencies” during pregnancy, said the ACDATEE abortion rights group.

They were freed on Thursday, and reunited with their families for Christmas after their prison sentences for aggravated homicide were commuted. The freed women were identified only by their first names.

Karen had spent six years in prison, Kathy eight, and Evelyn 13, ACDATEE member Morena Herrera told the AFP news agency.

“It is a joy for all of us who have been fighting for the release of all women who have been unjustly imprisoned for suffering obstetric emergencies under this harsh and inhumane criminal law,” Herrera added.

El Salvador bans abortion in all cases, and terminating a pregnancy can send a woman to jail for up to eight years. But judges often find women guilty of the crime of aggravated homicide instead, which can be punished by imprisonment of up to 50 years.

Many women are prosecuted after seeking medical help for complications in pregnancy, on suspicion of having attempted an abortion.

Fourteen other women remain in jail for similar reasons to Karen, Kathy and Evelyn, according to ACDATEE. “We continue fighting for the freedom of the rest of the women imprisoned,” said Herrera.

Campaigners are urging the government of El Salvador to legalise abortion when the woman’s life is at risk, the fetus is unviable, or if the pregnancy is the result of rape.

But their efforts suffered a major setback in September, when President Nayib Bukele scrapped a constitutional reform drafted by his government that would have opened the door to legalising medically necessary abortions.

Catholic and evangelical anti-abortion groups often coordinate protests and social media campaigns against efforts to liberalise the country’s abortion ban. They argue the victims in these cases are the unborn fetuses, rather than the imprisoned women or their families.

The United Nations has repeatedly denounced El Salvador’s criminalisation of women suspected of abortion.

Some other countries in Latin America, however, have recently been relaxing hardline stances on abortion in what women’s rights campaigners have dubbed the “green wave”.

After a decades-long fight by women’s rights advocates in Argentina, the country’s Senate in December legalised abortion, while Ecuador decriminalised abortion in cases of rape in April.

The procedure is also legal in Uruguay, Cuba, as well as in Mexico City and three Mexican states.

In September, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that criminalising abortion is unconstitutional.

El Salvador is one of a few countries in Latin America – along with Nicaragua, Suriname, the Dominican Republic and Honduras – where abortion is not legal under any circumstance, according to the campaign group Global Doctors for Choice.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies