What women's lives are like when abortion is a crime

Women read from the Bible at El Salvador's Ilopango prison, which teaches inmates skills such as knitting, piata-making, painting, dancing, aerobics, reading, and cosmetology, among others.

Story highlights

  • Alice Driver: Passage of a recent bill in the House of Representatives shows that for some Republicans, criminalizing abortion is a priority
  • If Americans want to know what women's lives are like in a country where abortion is a crime, they should listen to women in El Salvador, she writes

Alice Driver is a freelance journalist and translator whose work focuses on migration, human rights, and gender equality. She is currently based in Mexico City. Driver is the author of "More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico." The views expressed this commentary are solely the author's.

(CNN)During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump famously said that there should be "some form of punishment" for abortion. Although he later tried to walk these remarks back, he and his mostly male fellow Republicans have quietly been making headway since he took office on an agenda to make sure women have as few options as possible for reproductive choice and education, including limited access to birth control and the preventative care offered by Planned Parenthood.

This week, the House of Representatives passed the "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act," a bill criminalizing abortions after 20 weeks. The White House, through a statement of administration policy released on Monday night, backed the measure, meaning President Trump plans to sign it if it passes the Senate. Courts have recently struck down similar bans for violating Roe v. Wade and other rulings about abortion. In 2014, for instance, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case on Arizona's 20-week ban, letting stand a ruling from the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which said Arizona's law violated multiple Supreme Court rulings, including Roe v. Wade.
    In July, the Trump administration proposed a cut of $213.6 million from teen pregnancy prevention programs and research, even though those programs have been proven to decrease unwanted pregnancies and abortion.
    Alice Driver
    If Americans want to know what the lives of women are like in a country where abortion and even miscarriage have criminal penalties, they should listen to women in El Salvador, where I have been reporting for a project on women in prison.
    In El Salvador, abortion is illegal, with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. Often, women who are poor are charged with aggravated homicide even in cases of miscarriage. To put the situation of sexual and reproductive rights in El Salvador in context, it has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in Latin America, where, as a health official told Reuters in 2016, more than a third of all pregnancies occurred among girls aged 10 to 19. Nearly two in every five pregnancies among girls in El Salvador aged 10 to 12 are the result of rape and incest but the rapists often go unpunished, according to the UN Population Fund. Since 1998, at least 150 women have been prosecuted under El Salvador's abortion ban.
    In 2013, the case of 22-year-old "Beatriz" reached the Supreme Court in El Salvador. Due to various medical conditions, her pregnancy put her life in danger, and she wanted to have an abortion. The court ruled against her and she was forced to carry the fetus, which was delivered via C-section and lived for five hours.
    At 20 years old, Adriana, from San Salvador, El Salvador, gave birth at home alone to a child that wasn't breathing. Adriana requested that her name be changed for her safety. "My body was shaking. It was midnight. There was no transportation," she described. By the time she made it to the hospital, Adriana said that the staff -- rather than providing her with medical attention -- accused her of homicide and called the police. She was sent to Ilopango Women's Prison where she spent five months while her case went to court. The judge charged her with aggravated homicide and gave her the maximum sentence -- 30 years.
    According to María Rosa Cruz, 50, a psychologist in San Salvador who has worked to help women imprisoned for abortion to adjust to life after prison, in El Salvador "there is a hospital to prison pipeline" for poor women who suffer miscarriages. "Basically, these are poor, young women who have never been taught their sexual and reproductive rights, and many of them are victims of abuse -- you won't see any rich women in prison," explained Rosa Cruz.
    Educating people about women's bodily autonomy in a country where abortion is a crime is a battle some women have been fighting for decades in El Salvador. Morena Herrera is the founder and president of the Citizen's Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion in San Salvador, and is all too familiar with cases like that of Adriana. Herrera helped fight for the rights of a group of women known as "Las 17" who were sentenced to up to 30 years in jail following reported miscarriages between 1999 and 2011. As she describes, "The problem is that abortion isn't understood as a human rights, public health or social justice issue."
    She talked about the psychological damage caused by obligating a woman to have a child after rape or sexual violence or when the child is dead or deformed. "I know women who have children who are the result of rape," she said. "I remember a friend telling me, 'I saw my baby breast feed, and I promised I would transmit only love and not the hate of my rapist in my veins, but there are times when her gestures or her expressions are like his, and I can't deal with it.'"
    As recently as this past July, El Salvador enforced a law that made it possible for rapists to marry the underage girls that they had raped. For example, in 2017 a 12-old-girl who was raped by a 34-year-old was later forced to marry him, and the case was covered widely in the media because many women's rights organizations were galvanizing efforts to end the law.
    Iris Liseth Campos Reyes, 29, who describes herself as a feminist, has spent nine years as a social justice organizer in San Salvador, including the past two working with Youth Voices for Reproductive Choice. She has a personal connection to the injustice of the way rape victims were treated. She explained, "At 14 my mother was raped by a 64-year-old neighbor. She was raped over a period of years," and gave birth to four of her siblings as a result. "This law makes me think of my mom." Reyes, who has a nine-year-old daughter of her own, says she is inspired by her daughter to work in poor communities to teach women about their sexual and reproductive rights.
    Suggesting that women be punished for having abortions isn't the only risky similarity to observe between the United States and El Salvador. In March Oklahoma state Rep. George Faught claimed that rape and incest were part of God's will. In addition, in 2017 Republican legislators in Missouri proposed a bill to provide religious liberty protections for crisis pregnancy centers which often open next to abortion clinics and try to convince women not to have abortions.
    This type of religious rhetoric is also employed in El Salvador, where the church plays a strong role in government decisions. Anti-abortion signs and slogans in the streets of San Salvador, often featuring religious symbols like rosaries, read, "It's not your body -- it's your child" or show a photo of a baby that reads, "My life is in your hands." In fact, as Amnesty International outlines in the report "On the Brink of Death: Violence Against Women and the Prohibition of Abortion in El Salvador," it was a campaign on the part of the Catholic Church that produced the 1998 law making abortion illegal with no exceptions.

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    As women in the US face a reality in which they have fewer and fewer reproductive choices, in which teen pregnancy prevention programs are cut, birth control is not covered by insurance, and abortion is technically legal but not available in many areas due to the closure of clinics -- the situation in El Salvador provides an example of what we could look forward to if Republicans achieve their long-held goal of reversing Roe v. Wade. When I visited Ilopango Women's Prison, where women young and old have been jailed for decades for abortion, I looked at their faces and thought of the friends and family I know, including my own mother, who have had abortions. According to Ministry of Health data cited by Amnesty International, between 2005 and 2008 there were 19,290 abortions, of which 11% resulted in the death of the mother.
    I imagined how their different their lives -- and mine -- would have been if they had spent them in jail.