The argument over when human life begins is one of the most contentious in our world today. There are 66 countries that prohibit abortion under nearly all circumstances—though almost all of them exclude cases where the mother’s life is in danger. But in five of these nations, there are no exceptions. This dramatic repression of reproductive rights in El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Malta, and the Vatican forbids the practice even in situations of rape, incest, unviable fetus, or risk to the mother’s life.
Pregnant women in today’s El Salvador face a number of challenges the constant threat of gang violence to ensuing poverty. Many are victims of rape, often associated with gang initiations as well as high levels of incest, with many, alarmingly between the ages of 10 and 14. However, the most important threat to women’s reproductive rights is by far the state’s criminal ban on abortion. Since El Salvador’s absolute abortion ban came into law in 1998, some 150 women have been prosecuted under it. Doctors and nurses in public hospitals are required by the law to report any suspicious bleeding to the authorities, provoking criminal charges, which can lead to between 6 months to 7 years in prison. It is the poorer class of women who suffer the most, as doctors in private hospitals are not required to give information. Some women are even sentenced to up to 40-year prison terms for what are essentially stillbirths. They are known as the “mata niños,” roughly 20 women imprisoned and serving between 30 to 50-year sentences on homicide charges for allegedly killing their newborn children. Prosecutors argue against the nature of science, accusing women of willing themselves to expel their premature babies, creating an environment where women are persecuted for the mere natural failures of their own bodies.