A 22-year-old woman five months pregnant appeared before El Salvador's Supreme Court Wednesday to beg for her life. Known by the pseudonym Beatriz, she suffers from lupus and kidney problems. Her doctors say there is “strong probability of maternal death” if she doesn't terminate her pregnancy. When she was pregnant with her now 14-month-old son, Beatriz almost died: she suffered an exacerbation of her lupus, anaemia, pneumonia, and high blood pressure which led to severe pre-eclampsia. Her son was delivered via emergency cesarean section, and was in the hospital with digestive and respiratory problems for more than a month.
On top of that, her fetus has been diagnosed with anencephaly, a serious birth defect in which parts of the brain and skull are missing. As the Center for Disease Control states, almost all babies born with anencephaly will die shortly after birth. Although Beatriz's doctors would like to provide her with an abortion, they fear that they could face prison. In El Salvador, abortion is illegal, with no exceptions for incest, rape, or the health or life of the mother. In fact, since passing its strict abortion law in 1998, El Salvador has jailed 628 women for having abortions, some for 30 years.
Beatriz's doctors asked the legal authorities for a permission to perform a therapeutic abortion and a guarantee that they would not be prosecuted. The attorney general refused to grant any such guarantee. So, in mid-April, Beatriz's lawyers took her case to the Supreme Court. As if Beatriz's life weren't at risk, as if that risk weren't increasing with each passing moment, the Supreme Court waited until last week to ask the Institute of Legal Medicine (ILM) to make a recommendation. On May 7, to the shock and dismay of many, the ILM said Beatriz was not in immediate danger and recommended a "wait and see" approach.
According to Sara Garcia from the Citizens' Group for the Decriminalisation of Therapeutic, Ethical and Eugenic Abortion, "The opinion was completely biased... Four of the doctors that participated had already expressed an opinion against Beatriz being allowed a therapeutic abortion." And their decision is criticized by the Minister of Health, María Isabel Rodríguez: “It is not true that she is not in danger. The lupus that this young woman has is not curable and can’t be changed overnight. We know this disease is systemic, which means that it attacks all the organs, and we can’t know at what moment we’re going to have complications with her.” Rodriguez said. "We know she is at risk and every passing day of pregnancy increases the risk of potentially fatal complications."
So far, both the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission have urged the president of El Salvador to act to save Beatriz's life. Amnesty International, Care2, Human Rights Watch and RH Reality Check are also calling on the president to intervene. And feminist organizations in El Salvador, many of whom appeared outside the Supreme Court today, have been fighting for Beatriz.
On the other side of the battle over life and death are the Church, the president and anti-choice organizations, who are claiming that Beatriz is being politicized and manipulated by the very people fighting for her life. Catholic newspapers accuse an offensive, anti-life "feminist lobby" of manipulating Beatriz. As if a woman facing death would have to be manipulated into fighting for her own life. Speaking of manipulative, The archbishop of San Salvador attacked Beatriz's defenders, saying, “I can already see the scalpel killing babies tomorrow because they opened a door." And Monday, the president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, who has yet to lift a finger for Beatriz proclaimed that "Beatriz is not alone." (How touching).
Funes also stated, "We are not going to try to take advantage of this case by exploiting it with clear electoral aims. We have carefully staked out our position: Beatriz is the only one who has the right to make a decision about her life and her child, not all the organizations that want to make use of this case to advance their own agendas."
This is particularly rich, given that Funes is clearly exploiting Beatriz and abortion. When he was running for president, he backed Mexico's decriminalization of abortion and suggested that El Salvador revisit its own draconian abortion laws. And his party supports decriminalizing abortion. But after the Church demanded that all presidential candidates state their position on abortion, he made an about-face and came out against its decriminalization.
Earlier this month Beatriz appealed to the president in a video in which reveals her hands, but not her face: "I feel bad that they don't want to do it, knowing that the baby is going to die once it's born ... it doesn't make sense to continue with the pregnancy that won't survive. I want to live. I ask them from the bottom of my heart. The doctors at the hospital ... worry for my life. They would also like to do this. But they can't because they fear going to jail."
We'll have to see what the Supreme Court decides. For now, Beatriz's life hangs in the balance.
In October, a pregnant Savita Halappanavar was admitted to a hospital in Ireland for back pain. It became clear that her fetus was not viable and that she was miscarrying. Two days later, in pain and waiting to deliver a dead fetus, Halappanavar asked for an abortion. She would ask for an abortion three separate times. But the hospital refused to intervene as long as there was a fetal heartbeat. A nurse explained, "This is a Catholic country."
Three days later, she delivered the dead fetus. Three days after the delivery, Halappanavar died of septicaemia. Her death sparked world-wide protest, a change in Ireland's abortion laws and proclamations of never again. But it looks like, once again, a woman in need of an abortion, whose fetus is almost certainly not viable, may be left to die.