Dying woman denied abortion in El Salvador

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Health, International, Women's Rights

In a case with parallels to the case of Savita Halappanavar, a 22-year-old woman in El Salvador known by a single name, Beatriz, has a simple request.

“I want to live”

Beatriz’s identity has been hidden amid the stigma and strong, divided opinions about her case. But on Sunday May 5, she recorded a plea to the country’s president.

“President Mauricio Funes Cartagena, help me please,” she said.                                            “This baby inside me cannot survive. I am ill. I want to live… I want to live for my son.”

Beatriz life hangs in the balance while the El Salvador’s Supreme Court decides whether her right to life should be protected, or whether the rights of her unborn foetus should be the primary concern.

Beatriz is 23 weeks pregnant and has an auto-immune disease known as lupus, which causes the body’s immune system to attack its own tissue.  In Beatriz case, the foetus is unviable, scans have revealed that it is anencephalic – a large part of the brain and skull is missing.  Almost all babies with anencephaly die before birth, or within hours or days after the birth.

Her condition is deteriorating and her doctors say she is at “high risk of death” if the pregnancy continues.  Her doctors have recommended an abortion as the only option to save her life, but they cannot go ahead with the procedure due to fear of prosecution.  Abortion is illegal in El Salvador in all circumstances and can be punishable with prison sentences of up to 30 years.

While Beatriz is lying in hospital suffering from kidney failure, caused by her lupus, the risk to her life increases. The country’s religious right wing is adamant that there will be no exceptions; the life of the foetus takes precedent from the moment of conception. Public opinion in El Salvador is divided.

In March the medical team made an application to El Salvadorian legal authorities seeking permission to proceed with a termination in order to safeguard Beatriz’s life. They asked for a guarantee that they would not be prosecuted if they go ahead with the abortion. Authorities have yet to respond to this request.

According to Al Jazeera, several international bodies have now intervened:

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has taken the unprecedented step of ordering the El Salvadorian authorities to take “precautionary measures” and implement the treatment recommended by the Specialised National Maternity Hospital.

On April 29, the commission gave the government an ultimatum to carry out the procedure within 72 hours in order “to safeguard life, personal integrity and health”. It was an attempt by the commission to ensure the case was expedited by the Supreme Court.

Despite this ruling, no decision has yet been made.

Amnesty International’s Esther Major told Al Jazeera, that “The delays are unconscionable”.

In Ireland we have seen the tragedy that delay caused to Savita and her family.  Laws which prohibiting medical professionals to act to save a woman’s life are archaic and must be opposed in all circumstances. The life of Beatriz must take precedent and the ethos of the Catholic right wing must be challenged by men and women across the globe.