Beatriz, a 22-year old Salvadoran woman who is identified in the press only by her first name, is dying. She suffers from lupus, a chronic auto-immune disease that causes body’s immune system to destroy its own healthy tissue, and her condition typically worsens when she is pregnant. Since Beatriz is now about 23 weeks pregnant, her doctors say she is at “high risk of death” if she continues to carry the fetus — which has no chance of surviving, because several ultrasounds have revealed that it’s missing a big part of its brain and skull. If the deeply conservative Salvadoran government has its way, however, neither Beatriz nor her baby will survive.
In El Salvador, abortion is illegal under all circumstances — without even a narrow medical exception to save the woman’s life — and punishable by up to 30 years in prison. So even though medical professionals agree that an abortion is necessary to save Beatriz’s life, they can’t actually administer the procedure because they’re too afraid of the legal consequences in the Catholic-dominated country.
El Salvador’s attorney general could grant Beatriz and her doctors protection from prosecution, but he has so far refused to do so. Without any other legal options available to her, Beatriz’s case has made it all the way up to El Salvador’s Supreme Court, which is currently considering whether to grant her permission to receive the health care that will keep her alive. But as those deliberations stretch on, the ultimate decision may come too late for Beatriz.
Fifteen different doctors from the National Maternity Hospital first determined that Beatriz needed a life-saving abortion back when she was 13 weeks pregnant — which was ten weeks ago. She is being forced to keep waiting while the nation’s highest court considers the forensic evidence in her case. Instead of issuing a final decision, the Supreme Court ordered further testing last week, recommending that Beatriz continue with her pregnancy and see what happens. “The delays are unconscionable,” an Amnesty International spokesperson told Al Jazeera.
Women’s health advocates are drawing parallels between Beatriz’s case and the tragic death of Savita Halapannavar, the 31-year-old woman who died in an Irish Catholic hospital after being denied a life-saving abortion. Activists flooded the streets of Ireland after Savita’s death, declaring that a woman should “never again” be denied the health care she needs to stay alive. Nevertheless, in other conservative Catholic countries like El Salvador, there’s nothing to stop Savita’s story from repeating itself.
International human rights groups and women’s health advocates have joined forces to fight for Beatriz. The United Nations representative in El Salvador is urging officials to grant her a legal termination, and Amnesty International is running an online campaign urging people to write to the attorney general.
Beatriz’s identity has been protected while her case is ongoing, largely because abortion rights are so contentious in El Salvador. But earlier this month, she recorded a personal appeal to her president, imploring him to save her life. “President Mauricio Funes Cartagena, help me please,” she said. “This baby inside me cannot survive. I am ill. I want to live… I want to live for my son.” Beatriz has a 14-month-old son who suffers from health problems that were caused by the complications she experienced during her first pregnancy.
Unfortunately, Beatriz’s case is simply one example of the dangerous consequences of denying women access to reproductive care. Around the world, an estimated 47,000 women die each year because they lack access to safe, legal abortion care. And even in the United States, where abortion is legal under Roe v. Wade, the mounting state-level restrictions on abortion services — as well as concerted efforts to drive up the cost of abortion, which prevents many low-income women from being able to afford it — prohibit some vulnerable women from being able to access safe care. That dynamic is most recently evident in the case of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia-area abortion doctor currently on trial for murder. Several women died after seeking out illegal services in Gosnell’s unsanitary clinic.