Three Women Imprisoned on Abortion Charges Freed in El Salvador

Three women originally jailed for violating El Salvador’s stringent anti-abortion laws— Alba Rodríguez, María del Tránsito Orellana, and Cinthia Rodríguez—had their sentences commuted by El Salvador’s Supreme Court on March 7, one day before International Women’s Day.

According to BBC News, the three women were convicted in the late 2000s and sentenced to 30 years of imprisonment on charges of aggravated murder for allegedly having abortions, which all three women contend were miscarriages. The court commuted their sentences after finding they were victims of their socioeconomic sentences and, thus, the original sentences were overly harsh. The women had already spent 10 years in jail, and over 20 other women are still serving jail time in El Salvador on similar charges.

Abortion in El Salvador remains illegal, despite many people fighting to reform a system often considered too extreme. The Washington Post reports that in 1998, El Salvador joined the ranks of 26 other countries that banned abortion in all circumstances, including rape, incest, and possible injury or death to the mother. As International Woman’s Day was celebrated around the world, protestors gathered in El Salvador to demand changes to anti-abortion legislation.

The effectiveness of this legislation is unclear. A report written by Guernica found that the law has not been successful in decreasing abortion rates, meaning that clandestine—and often dangerous—abortion procedures conducted outside of hospitals are on the rise. The report also found that the number of women wrongfully convicted of abortion-related crimes has risen as well.  

Amidst mounting international pressure and domestic protests, El Salvador’s abortion laws are being questioned. On March 8, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted, “Women's reproductive rights are human rights that are universal and indivisible. Governments do not get to pick and choose whose rights and which rights will be respected.”

While the country’s constitution emphasizes a right to life beginning at conception, organizations like the Citizens Group for the Decriminalization of Ethical Abortion are fighting to change the law. They argue that anti-abortion laws serve only to deny women proper healthcare, deny them their reproductive rights, and deny them the presumption of innocence. In an effort to amend the law, El País reports that both of El Salvador’s political parties, FMLN and ARENA, have proposed reforms decriminalizing abortion in circumstances where pregnancy is the result of rape or threatens the life of the mother. It is unclear where the recently elected president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, stands on abortion.

Human Rights Watch holds that the law in El Salvador “undermines women’s rights under international law to life,” yet there seems to be no lasting resolution in sight. Although the release of these women may seem like a step in the right direction, similar gestures were undertaken in 2018 in response to international pressure, but ultimately failed to bring lasting change.