BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - El Salvador's Supreme Court has refused to allow an ill woman carrying a malformed foetus to have a potentially life-saving abortion, in a case that has sparked global outcry and revived debate about the country’s draconian abortion law.
The 22-year-old woman, known as Beatriz, is nearly five months pregnant with a foetus that is missing a large part of its brain and skull, which means the baby is very likely to be stillborn or to die soon after birth, the health ministry has said.
Beatriz, who has a young son, has been diagnosed with lupus disease and has kidney problems.
Abortion has been illegal in El Salvador under all circumstances since 1998 - even in cases of rape, incest, a severely deformed foetus or when the woman's life is in danger.
“The ruling of the judges is irresponsible, ambiguous and complex,” one of Beatriz’s lawyers, Angelica Rivas, told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from San Salvador.
She said that while judges had ruled against Beatriz’s appeal to have an abortion, their ruling also stated that doctors treating her were “responsible for maintaining her health.”
“So there are some positive aspects to the ruling because it suggests doctors can take action to save her life if they deem it necessary. But what’s not clear is whether there would be penal consequences against the doctors,” Rivas said.
At this late stage in the pregnancy, any procedure carried out by Beatriz’s doctors would involve an induced pregnancy and not an abortion, Rivas said.
Rivas and other lawyers visited Beatriz yesterday in the maternity hospital in the capital San Salvador where she is staying to tell her about the court’s ruling.
“She’s devastated but calm considering the circumstances, and she’s receiving help from psychologists,” Rivas said. “Beatriz’s health is unstable and it’s deteriorating by the day. She is suffering pain in a kidney, for which she is taking pain medication, and is losing lots of hair related to the lupus disease she has.”
The Supreme Court judges took 48 days to decide on Beatriz’s case before voting four to one to reject her appeal. They cited El Salvador’s constitution, which protects life 'from the moment of conception' and ruled that her ‘right to life and health had not been violated.’
In their 23-page ruling, published in the local press, the judges said: "This court determines that the rights of the mother cannot take precedence over those of the unborn child or vice versa, and that there is an absolute bar to authorising an abortion as contrary to the constitutional protection accorded to human persons 'from the moment of conception'.
One judge, Rodolfo Gonzalez, said he had not been convinced Beatriz’s life was at risk if the pregnancy was allowed to continue. He said the court could not be turned into a "tribunal to allow the interruption of pregnancies".
Lawyer Rivas indicated that Beatriz might leave El Salvador to get medical treatment elsewhere.
“Yesterday immigration officials came to the hospital to give Beatriz a passport. She’s too sick to leave her hospital bed. Perhaps that’s the first step in any plans to leave the country,” Rivas said.
Rights groups have condemned the ruling, calling it a human rights violation.
“The refusal of the Salvadoran Supreme Court to allow Beatriz to obtain a medical procedure that could save her life is an appalling and disgraceful violation of her fundamental human rights,” Lilian Sepulveda, head of the global legal programme at the New-York based Center for Reproductive Rights said in a statement.
“Salvadoran women have been paying an unacceptably high price for El Salvador’s abortion ban. Women should never lose their fundamental rights, or be subject to such cruel and inhuman treatment, simply because they have become pregnant.”
The powerful influence of the Roman Catholic Church on a society that remains staunchly conservative and patriarchal is one factor behind the Central American nation’s stringent abortion laws.
Catholic bishops and anti-abortion groups in El Salvador have publicly opposed abortion for Beatriz and say the young woman is being used by pro-choice organisations.
Lawyers are considering using international courts to help Beatriz.
“The ruling of El Salvador’s Supreme Court is final, you can’t appeal against that so the doors have been closed at the national level. But there’s the possibility for us to go to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights,” Rivas said.