Pregnant and at risk,a young Salvadoran tests abortion law

Beatriz spends her days in a hospital room,anxiously watching her belly grow

Written by New York Times | Mexico City | Published: June 4, 2013 12:14:27 am


Beatriz spends her days in a hospital room,anxiously watching her belly grow.

Her doctors say she is inching along a high-risk pregnancy that could ultimately kill her,fraught with risks caused by lupus and other complications. The foetus itself has such a severe birth defect that it has almost no chance of surviving,they say,urging an end to the pregnancy to protect Beatriz’s health before it gets worse. But in El Salvador,where she lives,abortion is illegal under any circumstances,including when the mother’s life is in danger.

Now she is waiting for the Salvadoran Supreme Court to rule on her case,which has quickly become a focal point in a broad battle over abortion in Latin America,a largely conservative region where the Roman Catholic Church holds considerable sway.

Long home to some of the world’s most stringent abortion laws,the region has begun experiencing a shift in recent years,with some nations loosening restrictions or even legalising the procedure. Now Beatriz’s case is testing the limits of one of the more ironclad bans the region still has,challenging whether abortion should remain off-limits even when the baby has little hope of survival.

“I don’t want to die,” Beatriz,22,who already has one child,said during a telephone interview. “I want to be with my boy,taking care of him.”

Advocates have adopted her cause to intensify a regional push toward a shift in abortion legislation,arguing that her rights under international law are being violated: The foetus is not viable,her risk of serious illness or death is increasing as her pregnancy progresses,and she already has an infant child to care for. A group of United Nations human rights experts called on El Salvador’s government to grant “exceptions to its general prohibition,especially in cases of therapeutic abortion.”

The Salvadoran church,by contrast,has argued that the baby’s malformation should not be met with a death sentence.

“This case should not be used to legislate against human life,” read a statement from the Episcopal Conference of El Salvador.

Several Latin American nations have softened their stances against abortion in recent years. Uruguay’s Senate approved a bill last year allowing women to have abortions during the first trimester for any reason,after an earlier move to legalise the procedure in Mexico City. Courts in Colombia,Brazil and Argentina have also loosened restrictions on some abortions,allowing them in certain cases like rape or when the foetus is expected to die.

But a total ban on the procedure remains in El Salvador,Chile and Nicaragua. Doctors who perform abortions and mothers who request them can be sentenced to long prison terms. Under Salvadoran law,Beatriz,who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her identity,and her doctors could face up to eight years in prison if one is performed.

Beatriz is well aware that there is an international frenzy swirling around her,but it seems far from her mind—an abstraction compared with the palpable yearning to touch the young son she left behind in her rural village,three hours away.

She says she believes abortions are almost always wrong,acceptable only when the mother is at risk.

When Beatriz found out she was pregnant with her second child,doctors told her that the foetus had anencephaly,a birth defect in which the baby is born without parts of the brain and skull. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,almost all anencephalic babies die shortly after birth.

Beatriz testified during a two-day oral hearing at the Supreme Court nearly two weeks ago,the first of its kind in the country’s history. During a cross-examination,Víctor Hugo Mata,Beatriz’s lawyer,asked her to remove her shawl. Standing in front of the judges,she uncovered her arms,chest and back to reveal lupus-related sores. Her lupus,currently,is under control.

Overwhelmed,she had to leave the chamber.

On May 30,the judges upheld the ban and Beatriz was denied a lifesaving abortion.

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