A peek into a pro-life paradise

The restrictions that pro-lifers want for all of us are on display in the case of a woman in El Salvador.

Anti-abortionists hold placards during a protest at the
El Salvador has some of the world's strictest laws against abortion [Reuters]

Want to see just how much pro-lifers value life? Look to El Salvador.

There, a woman named Beatriz spent months languishing near death. Her kidneys were shutting down. She has lupus. She’s 22 years old with an infant and a husband at home in rural El Salvador.

The problem? A high-risk pregnancy exacerbating her existing health conditions, with a fetus that was anencephalic – meaning it was developing with only a brainstem and no brain, and was unlikely to survive for more than a few hours outside of the womb, if at all. Doctors confirmed that to save Beatriz, they needed to terminate her pregnancy.

A late termination was better than none, but even that was problematic – the longer the pregnancy, the more Beatriz’s kidney function would decline, and the higher the likelihood she would be on dialysis for the rest of her life. For Beatriz, who is poor and lives in a rural area of El Salvador, a life of dialysis may not be an immediate death sentence but it’s certainly a life-shortening one. 

Most people would agree that Beatriz is a reasonable exception to abortion restrictions. But El Salvador legally abides by the pro-life manifesto that abortion is murder, and is never medically necessary to save a woman’s life. On May 29, the country’s highest court agreed, denying Beatriz the procedure – ruling that her death “is not actual or imminent, but rather eventual”.

Abortion dispute divides El Salvador

So since Beatriz would likely die in a few days or weeks instead of hours, it was acceptable to do nothing, the court said. Her declining health apparently wasn’t much of a consideration, even though common sense (and modern medicine) confirm that long periods of grave illness typically do not lead to great health outcomes even if the patient survives. 

For good measure, the court added that “the rights of the mother cannot be privileged over those” of the fetus. In the meantime, the rights of the fetus are very much privileged over those of the woman. 

Women in El Salvador can and do go to jail for terminating pregnancies. Some 600 women have been criminally investigated under El Salvador’s penal code deeming abortion homicide, and nearly 30 have been imprisoned. 

On May 30, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the El Salvadoran government to provide Beatriz with life-saving care. In a compromise to appease pro-lifers, doctors were permitted to deliver Beatriz’s fetus by Caesarean section in order to save her life. On Monday, June 3, they went forward with the procedure. The baby died five hours after delivery. 

Dogma: more important than life

It’s a tragedy and an absurdity: All parties knew Beatriz’s fetus would die once removed from her body, no matter which procedure was used. But because semantics are apparently more important than Beatriz’s health or life, pro-life forces in El Salvador forced her to wait past the 26-week mark of her pregnancy while her health declined, and then required an invasive surgical procedure that is far more dangerous than an earlier, more standard abortion would have been.

The insistence on putting a woman’s life at risk to maintain ideological purity is not relegated to C-section versus abortion decisions. For women with ectopic pregnancies, in which a fertilised egg implants outside of the uterus (often in the Fallopian tube), many Catholic hospitals are very bad places to be. Even though ectopic pregnancies can never come to fruition – a fetus can’t develop in a Fallopian tube – modern Catholic dogma dictates that the fertilised egg cannot simply be removed.

That’s a problem, since fertilised eggs grow and will eventually rupture the tube, creating a potentially life-threatening situation. At non-Catholic hospitals, a woman with an ectopic pregnancy could have it dissolved with a simple injection of methotrexate, but dissolving a fertilized egg is, to radical pro-lifers, murder. So for a woman getting Catholic medical care at many facilities, an ectopic pregnancy often means that her whole Fallopian tube has to be removed. The egg, of course, will die anyway as soon as the tube is cut off from the woman’s body. But doctors didn’t directly kill it, so its death is considered morally acceptable. Acceptable, too, is the fact that the woman’s fertility has now been compromised, and she’s had to undergo an invasive procedure instead of a readily available, simpler, safer one. 

Some Catholic hospital employees surreptitiously administer methotrexate, or work to move the patient to a hospital that will allow her to end the ectopic pregnancy safely. But good health care shouldn’t depend on individual doctors who bend the rules, and it’s clear that adaptation of the Catholic bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives directly compromises good health.

At least women with ectopic pregnancies tend to live. That’s not the case for many women in “pro-life” nations who die after securing unsafe illegal abortions, or who are denied procedures even under extenuating circumstances. Savita Halappanavar, a woman who died in Ireland after being refused a medically necessary abortion, is just one high-profile example. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also had to intervene in a case in Nicaragua in which a woman was refused cancer treatment because of her pregnancy.

Alicja Tysiac, the Polish woman who was told that a pregnancy would exacerbate her failing eyesight and make her go blind, was also refused an abortion. She suffered a retinal haemorrhage and lost most of her vision. A 16-year-old from the Dominican Republic, who was refused cancer treatment for many weeks because of her pregnancy, lost the baby and then died herself. 

And are many, many more cases that never come across the desks of human rights defenders, let alone gain international attention. 

Harassed and humiliated

Then there are the women who aren’t physically killed or injured, but who are harassed, humiliated and made to feel like criminals simply for seeking out a medical procedure – like the 14-year-old Polish rape victim who not only had to petition a special prosecutor for the privilege to terminate her pregnancy, but was then denied an abortion at a Catholic hospital in her deeply religious country, harassed by pro-lifers, taken to the police station for questioning and removed from her mother and placed in juvenile care. As if that isn’t traumatising enough to a young teenager pregnant after rape, the hospital issued a press release bragging about its refusal to serve her. 

Pro-lifers are proud of themselves for all of this. “Once again, Salvadorans have given an example to the entire world that we defend the right to life of all human beings however small, poor, vulnerable or defenceless,” said Julia Regina de Cardenal, director of the foundation Yes to Life, about Beatriz’s case in El Salvador. Yes, allowing a young mother to slowly die in the hospital because the life of a non-viable fetus is more important than hers is quite an example. 

[The anti-abortion movement is] not about preserving life. It’s about legislating a very narrow, reductive view of the world onto everyone else.

Even American pro-lifers got in on the act. Lila Rose, president of the anti-abortion group Live Action, which makes intentionally misleading videos about abortion clinics to further its ideological aims, told the Huffington Post that abortion is never necessary to save a woman’s life. Of course, doctors around the world would disagree – remind me where Rose studied medicine and obstetrics again? – but facts and evidence are not as true as Rose’s conviction. 

“We can do better than pitting the life of a mother against her child,” she said. “Abortions are never medically necessary. Some doctors prescribe abortion as if it’s a treatment for a disease or a problem, but that’s not a solution a truly compassionate and just society should turn to.

“I don’t know what the doctors are advising her, but doctors have certainly been wrong,” Rose said.

Doctors have indeed been wrong in the past. But ask yourself who you want making medical decisions for you: You and your doctor, or Lila Rose?

Rose’s views may not represent the average person who identifies as pro-life, but they absolutely reflect the stance of nearly every mainstream pro-life organisation. As much as the anti-abortion movement bills itself as compassionate, at the end of the day it’s about controlling women’s bodies and sticking to ideology over common sense. It’s not about preserving life. It’s about legislating a very narrow, reductive view of the world onto everyone else. 

The world that Beatriz lives in – the ideology that was slowly killing her, and that allowed her to live only after she jumped through a series of ridiculous hoops – is the one that pro-lifers want for all of us. It’s a tragedy that one woman had to physically bear the burden of such misogynist dogma. We should take it off her shoulders, instead of allowing pro-life forces to expand it onto all of us. 

Jill Filipovic is a consultant, writer, speaker and recovering attorney. She assists fashion and lifestyle brands, legal organisations and law firms, international NGOs, non-profits and corporations in using new media to reach their business and strategic objectives. She holds a JD from NYU School of Law. 

Follow her on Twitter: @JillFilipovic