Denial of life-saving abortions: A tragic story in slow motion

First published in Thomson Reuters Foundation on May 14, 2013.

Author: Monica Roa, Women’s Link Worldwide

The story is usually the same.  A poor, young woman finds that she is pregnant.  Something happens and she feels bad, so she goes to the town health-care centre.  They do not quite understand what is wrong and refer her to the nearest – often not so near- hospital.

The doctors run some tests and eventually realise the pregnancy is somehow a threat to her health.  They all agree -privately- that an abortion would either save her life or at least allow the woman to get the best possible treatment. She never thought of having an abortion before, but as soon as she learns about her situation, tears run down her face, and she asks the doctors to save her.

But one or more of the doctors freaks out and reminds everyone that abortion is forbidden. Some other doctors feel sorry for the girl but are too scared to do anything.  Mothers, husbands and friends worry to death.

Sometimes through the family, sometimes through the personnel at the hospital, someone contacts a local women’s group. They talk to the woman and promise they will help. By then, the pregnancy is at least into the last part of the first trimester.

The local group organises protests and alerts other groups. The local media publicises the case and the local anti-choice movement comes out crying “save the unborn,” usually led by the local priest. They also alert their own groups.

Soon, the bigger national groups, both pro-choice and anti-choice -led now by the archbishop- are debating in national media whether abortion should be legal or not using the same arguments over and over again.

And in the meantime, the woman’s life is hanging from a thread and her pregnancy continues advancing, it is a race against the clock. By the time the international community learns about the case and a sophisticated system of mobilisation finds momentum to get political results, the woman dies.  And then her case becomes an excellent one to litigate at an international court.

Today her name is Beatriz* and the location is El Salvador, where 19 women are currently in jail with sentences of up to 40 years, for having had abortions. On other occasions, it is a different name, in a different place.

Rarely, the story changes a bit and the girl is not so young and she is not so poor, but she is a migrant. Like the case of Savita Halappanavar, the 31 year-old Indian dentist, who died in Ireland because doctors said “it’s a catholic country” and abortion is not allowed as long as the heart of the fetus beats.

I am an international advocate for the human rights of women. Together with my colleagues, I litigate those tragic cases trying to set global standards: at the very least, women and girls should not die because they are denied an abortion to protect their own right to life, health and integrity.  I have seen the story play before my eyes too many times. It goes in slow motion while we desperately try to change the end. Few times we succeed.

In December of last year, the Inter-American Court for Human Rights stated that “the defense of the unborn is essentially carried out through the protection of the woman” and that “there is not precedent to grant the status of person to an embryo.” I celebrated thinking it was a great breakthrough that would bring to an end such unrealistic and damaging arguments.

But then last week I heard the Spanish Minister of Justice Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón say in Congress that he is going to eliminate abortion rights, taking back more than 30 years of acquired rights, disregarding the human rights principle of non-retrogression, in order to protect the right to life of the unborn.  So today I fear I’ll have to witness many more stories before our job is done.

For the time being there is still some time to save Beatriz.

* On April 29th, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights granted precautionary measures asking El Salvador to provide the interruption of the pregnancy as suggested by the medical committee.

Mónica Roa is programmes director at Women’s Link Worldwide. She filed a constitutional lawsuit that led to the liberalization of Colombia’s complete ban on abortion in 2006. At Women’s Link she leads the efforts to promote and defend abortion and other reproductive rights as human rights around the globe. To support their work click here.

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