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El Salvador must amend reproductive health care laws after top Americas court ruling – UN experts

06 December 2021



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.


*The experts: Melissa Upreti (Chair), Dorothy Estrada Tanck (Vice-Chair), Elizabeth Broderick, Ivana Radačić, and Meskerem Geset Techane, Working Group on discrimination against women and girls; Reem Alsalem,Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences; Tlaleng-Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right to health; Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body ofindependent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN human rights country page -El Salvador

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