UN human rights experts* hailed a landmark ruling in favour of a Salvadoran woman who died in custody after she was jailed following an obstetric emergency, saying the decision now consecrates standards to protect women seeking reproductive health care in Latin America.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) found El Salvador responsible for the death of Manuela, who was sentenced to prison for 30 years in 2008 for “aggravated murder” after her pregnancy loss. She died in 2010 due to inadequate medical care for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to the top regional court.
“This is a ground-breaking ruling and sets an important precedent that will help protect women’s right to reproductive healthcare, including abortion, throughout Latin America and the Caribbean,” the experts said.
In the ruling issued on 30 November, the Court has urged El Salvador to ensure comprehensive care in cases of obstetric emergencies and to design a sexual and reproductive education programme. The experts particularly welcome that the decision calls for training judicial officials and health personnel on human rights standards to ensure the elimination of discriminatory gender stereotypes in investigation and criminal prosecution and to prevent violations of patient confidentiality by medical professionals. It also ordered El Salvador to make reparations to Manuela’s parents and children.
El Salvador has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world: for more than 20 years it has criminalised abortion in all circumstances, even when necessary to save a woman’s life. Most women prosecuted for these alleged crimes are between 18 and 25 years old. They have limited economic resources, come from rural or marginalised urban areas and lack formal education.
“The absolute prohibition of abortion has led to a systematic practice of discrimination against women who suffer obstetric emergencies or pregnancy loss due to complications during pregnancy, which constitutes gender-based violence and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, leading to revictimization,” the experts said.
“Under El Salvador’s current legal framework, they can be charged with the crime of aggravated homicide and sentenced to prison terms of up to 50 years, without respect for guarantees of due process. With this ruling, El Salvador must now amend its laws in line with international human rights standards.”
An absolute prohibition on abortion violates the human rights of women and girls and contravenes the obligations to protect their dignity and their rights to life, health, personal and physical integrity, equality and non-discrimination, freedom from violence, privacy and reproductive autonomy. The enforcement of bans and restrictions also contribute to deprivation of their liberty.
The experts urge El Salvador to speedily implement the IACHR’s ruling and reiterate their recommendations to the legislative and executive branches to decriminalise termination of pregnancy and ensure access to safe and legal abortion services at a minimum in cases of rape, incest, when the pregnancy poses a danger to the physical or mental health of the woman or girl and in cases of severe foetal impairment.
“It is also essential to end the criminalisation and imprisonment of women who have suffered miscarriages, obstetric emergencies or other reproductive health complications during pregnancy and for women to not be subjected to any kind of punishment, stigma and degrading treatment for seeking reproductive health care,” the experts said.
The legal requirement for health personnel and public officials to report suspected cases of abortion must be eliminated to ensure the security and human rights of women and girls in the country, since more than half of the complaints against women reportedly come from these sources, they added.