Anti-abortion laws challenged by historic pardon


El Salvador’s feminist and reproductive rights movements are celebrating a victory in the ongoing struggle against the country’s harsh anti-abortion laws after the Legislative Assembly voted to pardon a woman serving a 30-year sentence for aggravated homicide following a stillbirth.

Carmen Guadalupe Vasquez was charged upon being taken to the hospital for hemorrhaging after delivering a stillborn fetus at a home where she was employed as a domestic worker. El Salvador’s Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion helped her file a petition for pardon along with 16 other women in prison for similar cases. An accompanying international grassroots and media campaign pushed Salvadoran lawmakers to send the petitions to the Supreme Court, which must then recommend each individual pardon before the Legislative Assembly can vote for final approval.

So far, the court has approved two such petitions, first in November for “Mirna R.,” who has already served her 12-year sentence, and then last week for Ms. Vasquez, who had served 7 years of her 30-year sentence. Following the Court’s evaluation that in Ms. Vasquez's case the cause of death of the fetus was inconclusive, lawmakers brought the pardon to a vote on January 16, but right-wing parties blocked the measure by a single vote. After a week of activist lobbying and public pressure, the governing leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party, which has 31 seats, brought the pardon back to a vote on January 21, citing procedural errors in the original vote. Along with seven legislators from the Grand National Alliance (GANA) party, the lone representative of Democratic Change (CD) and four independents, the measure passed with the 43 votes required for a simply majority.

The debate on women’s reproductive rights in El Salvador has historically been dominated by the Catholic Church and its ultra-conservative Opus Dei sect, with support from the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party. But recent women's activism has pushed an unprecedented shift in the political discussion on abortion in El Salvador, marked by the Supreme Court’s endorsement of the pardon and Wednesday’s vote.

Legislative Assembly President Sigfrido Reyes of the FMLN expressed his party’s commitment to seeking a pardon for each of the 17 women, saying that he feels “ashamed of the Salvadoran legislation that does not respect women’s sexual reproductive rights.”

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