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.