El Salvador’s ‘Beatriz’ and the politics of abortion in Latin America

If a mother’s life is gravely threatened by her pregnancy and the unborn child is all but certain to die shortly after birth, is that a sufficient condition for a deeply Catholic country to set aside its outright ban on abortions? Until today, the answer to that question in El Salvador was a firm no. ...

Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

If a mother's life is gravely threatened by her pregnancy and the unborn child is all but certain to die shortly after birth, is that a sufficient condition for a deeply Catholic country to set aside its outright ban on abortions? Until today, the answer to that question in El Salvador was a firm no.

In a 4 to 1 decision, the country's Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a woman ill with lupus and kidney failure does not have a right to an abortion -- despite the fact that her unborn child is all but certain to die outside the womb. The ruling is not surprising given El Salvador's strict ban on abortions. But on Friday the 22-year-old woman in question -- known only as "Beatriz" -- said that she will have a Caesarean section next week, a decision endorsed by the country's health minister.

Beatriz's 26-week-old unborn child has a condition known as anencephaly in which a baby is born missing parts of its brain, and the child is all but certain to die once removed from the womb. If the pregnancy proceeds, Beatriz -- who already has an infant child -- is also likely to die. And while El Salvador's Supreme Court found that these two facts were not relevant considerations under the country's abortion law, the decision to grant Beatriz a C-section represents a significant development.

If a mother’s life is gravely threatened by her pregnancy and the unborn child is all but certain to die shortly after birth, is that a sufficient condition for a deeply Catholic country to set aside its outright ban on abortions? Until today, the answer to that question in El Salvador was a firm no.

In a 4 to 1 decision, the country’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a woman ill with lupus and kidney failure does not have a right to an abortion — despite the fact that her unborn child is all but certain to die outside the womb. The ruling is not surprising given El Salvador’s strict ban on abortions. But on Friday the 22-year-old woman in question — known only as “Beatriz” — said that she will have a Caesarean section next week, a decision endorsed by the country’s health minister.

Beatriz’s 26-week-old unborn child has a condition known as anencephaly in which a baby is born missing parts of its brain, and the child is all but certain to die once removed from the womb. If the pregnancy proceeds, Beatriz — who already has an infant child — is also likely to die. And while El Salvador’s Supreme Court found that these two facts were not relevant considerations under the country’s abortion law, the decision to grant Beatriz a C-section represents a significant development.

“This court determines that the rights of the mother cannot take precedence over those of the unborn child or vice versa, and that there is an absolute bar to authorising an abortion as contrary to the constitutional protection accorded to human persons ‘from the moment of conception,'” the judges said in announcing their ruling, according to the BBC. 

Latin America is known for its highly restrictive abortion laws, and El Salvador is one of seven countries in the region — the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Chile, Honduras, Haiti, and Suriname are the others — to have an outright ban on abortion. For comparison’s sake, the map below shows how abortion rights stack up around the world (click on the image to expand): 

Though Uruguay recently passed a law removing criminal penalties for an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, there has been little movement toward liberalizing abortion statutes in Latin America. The Brazilian senate is currently debating a change to its abortion law and Mexico City now allows some abortions, but there are few other signs of change in the region. (As tragic as each individual abortion may be, studies have found that restricting access to the procedure is ineffective in reducing the frequency of abortions, since the prohibitions force women to find abortions elsewhere, often under unsafe circumstances that can endanger the life of the mother.)

Still, the case of Beatriz could come to represent an important touchstone in abortion reform in the region. While the decision to perform a C-section technically means that an abortion will not be performed, it is largely a distinction without a difference since Beatriz’s child will die once removed from the womb as a result of either medical procedure. That fact hasn’t stopped authorities in El Salvador from emphasizing the distinction. “It is very clear at this time that the pregnancy intervention is not an abortion, it is an induced birth, which is something else,” Maria Rodriguez, the country’s health minister, said in a news conference.

In Latin America, the Catholic Church looms large in any discussion of access to abortion. And the newly appointed Pope Francis has not indicated that he will deviate from the church’s hard-line doctrine. While a cardinal in Argentina, Francis urged that country’s bishops to deny communion to politicians working to widen access to the procedure.

But as is evident from the controversy surrounding Beatriz, small changes and compromises — like carrying out a C-section — can make a big difference in the lives of women. In this case, it could save a mother’s life. 

Twitter: @EliasGroll

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