Last year, Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman being treated in a hospital in Ireland, was denied a life saving abortion because of the country’s strict Catholic code of conduct. She died. The world was outraged as it came face to face with the horrifying truth that when religion guides your government, the death toll rises. Now we are again facing a situation in which a woman is being killed by her nonviable fetus, and the country in question adheres to strict standards that do not consider women’s lives a priority.
22 year old Beatriz – already a mother of one – is suffering from lupus and kidney disease, conditions made even more dangerous by her nonviable pregnancy. The fetus she has been carrying for 4 1/2 months has no brain and only a partial skull. It has virtually no chance of survival. The fetus is also killing Beatriz.
But in El Salvador, all abortions are illegal. There are no exceptions, no extenuating circumstances, no options. If Beatriz’s doctors were to perform an abortion anyway, they could all face years in prison. For Beatriz herself, it could be even worse. After enduring these harrowing conditions and the trauma of such an abortion, she could be penalized by up to 50 years in jail.
A Catholic Country
Religion has always played a huge role in the inflexibility of the pro-life stance, declaring a life to begin at conception and that nothing and no one should kill that child for any reason. But when I think of El Salvador, I think not just of the iron grip of these strict Catholic teachings. I think also of the doctrine that grew out of the understanding of a few brave priests, who determined that in order to serve their people, they needed to interpret the Bible from a place of solidarity with the poor. This is liberation theology.
Liberation theology grew out of the desperate poverty, fear, and injustice imposed on the El Salvadoran people after centuries of colonial domination and then decades of military dictatorship, followed by civil war that disproportionately punished the indigenous and the poor. Traditional Catholic teachings said that the poor’s only hope for salvation was through obedience and acceptance. But Jesuit teachings and those priests who worked among the people knew that such doctrine could not and would not ring true with a population so marginalized and so terrorized. Instead, they joined with the workers and the poor to fight back against structural hegemony that threatened the very lives and livelihoods of the country’s people.
How is this relevant? Financial hardship, lack of access to comprehensive sexual education, and no health care make poor women disproportionately affected by the need for reproductive health and abortion services worldwide. Once again, we see the institutional privilege of the church overwhelming impacting poor people – in this case, women – by devaluing their lives and their very humanity in order to preserve ancient customs and power structures that support the Catholic Church’s influence on the El Salvadoran government.
And so what is interesting about Beatriz’s story is that the same Catholic doctrines that are preventing her from receiving this life saving medical procedures are the ones that have traditionally oppressed the people of El Salvador. These teachings aren’t about compassion or justice. They are – as they have always been – about propping up the control of the Church and sacrificing the lives of the poor in order to do so. Beatriz needs an intervention of liberation theology to save her life.
Woman, Criminal, Felon
The hospital where Beatriz is being treated has petitioned the Supreme Court to allow their doctors to perform this life-saving abortion, but months later, they’ve received no response. This isn’t surprising considering not just the grip of the church on public life, but also how very brutally strict the anti abortion laws are in El Salvador. In 2006, the New York Times published an article called “Pro-Life Nation” that speaks of horrifying methods of control over women’s bodies and criminal prosecution for anything that seems to consider the word abortion. Doctors are required by law to report to the authorities if they see a patient whom they suspect of having had an abortion. And then there’s this:
In the event that the woman’s illegal abortion went badly and the doctors have to perform a hysterectomy, then the uterus is sent to the Forensic Institute, where the government’s doctors analyze it and retain custody of her uterus as evidence against her.”
During the course of an investigation, a woman’s body is literally considered a crime scene. This is all even before a woman (and her doctors and anyone associated with the “crime”) is put through the trauma of a trial and convicted. Because believe it or not, it can get worse. In El Salvador, longer sentences are considered more prestigious “wins” for the prosecutor, and so we’ve seen an increase in the number of late term abortions being classified as aggravated homicides. Aggravated homicide can carry penalties of up to 50 years in prison.
How the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Movements Can Work Together to Save Beatrice
Working with our allies over at RHRealityCheck and Care2, I started a petition to the government of El Salvador to allow these doctors to perform this abortion and save Beatriz’s life. As of now, the petition has over 21,000 signatures from outraged men and women all over the world who are in shock and disbelief that our global community is allowing this to happen yet again. But what’s struck me though is not just the outpouring of support for this woman, but the support that is coming from people who self-identify as pro-life. Read the petition and its signatures here and you’ll see what I mean.
Two years ago, I wrote a blog post for Fem2.0 about finding common ground with the pro-life community. About how I’d be more willing to work with them if the movement itself wasn’t almost entirely rooted in punishing women for having sex. That’s what it means when you are anti sexual education, anti birth control, etc. Of course, there are rays of hope. All Our Lives is an inspired organization that should really get more attention than it does. From their mission statement:
Are you pro-birth control? Pro-sex education? Pro-LGBT rights? Pro-every-life, before and after birth? Welcome to All Our Lives! All Our Lives defends women’s right to voluntarily make all non-violent choices about sexuality and reproduction. We defend a woman’s right to choose her own sexual partners without shame or coercion or discrimination, to have no sexual partners at all if she so desires, to choose to attempt conception or to prevent it by the methods that work best for her, to raise any children she might bear in safety and with dignity, and to be free of dominance and violence. We promote a sexual ethic that combines freedom with responsibility toward not only one’s self and one’s partner, but also toward any children who might be conceived.
These are the kinds of people who are also standing behind Beatriz. Who are calling on the government to have compassion and concern for this woman, to save her life. In this, when the fetus is nonviable and is responsible – like a parasite – for killing the mother, in this we can all surely stand together. Because there is nothing pro-life about allowing Beatriz to die.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights have called on the government of El Salvador to save Beatriz’s life. Both El Salvador’s Minister of Health and Attorney General for Human Rights support allowing an exception to save Beatriz’ life, yet still the Supreme Court has delayed making this literally life and death decision. Now this impoverished young mother has entered early stage renal failure as her pregnancy steadily destroys her kidneys.
The UN is behind her, El Salvadoran government officials are behind her, even pro-life advocates in the United States are behind her. It’s imperative that we keep up the pressure and demand they save her life. I don’t know about you, but I can’t allow another Savita Halappanavar to die. We can save Beatriz – we must save Beatriz.
We may only have days. Please, share this story and sign the petition: bit.ly/savebeatriz.
Beatriz hasn’t given up hope yet – we shouldn’t either.
Photo Credit: Vernon Shaw via Creative Commons