El Salvador Upholds Abortion Rules In Highly Charged Case

Melissa Block speaks with New York Times reporter Karla Zabludovsky about El Salvador's national policy restricting abortions under any circumstances — a decision that puts one 22-year-old at particularly high risk.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

El Savador's highest court has ruled that a pregnant woman, whose health is expected to deteriorate as her pregnancy continues, cannot undergo an abortion. The 22-year-old, who goes by the name Beatriz to protect her identity, has lupus. Doctors say she faces growing risks of kidney failure, hemorrhage, and maternal death. The fetus has a severe birth defect and is not expected to live.

In a 4-to-1 vote, the court upheld El Salvador's strict abortion ban, stating the rights of the mother cannot be privileged over those of the fetus. New York Times reporter Karla Zabludovsky has been following this case. And, Karla, tell us what else the court said in its ruling yesterday.

KARLA ZABLUDOVSKY: Well, the court, first of all, cited the absolute impediment that they have to authorize any abortion. They recognize that Beatriz has lupus and other pre-existing health conditions. But they said that her health is stable at this point and ordered doctors to monitor her continuously. I think it's important to note that they also made clear that if her condition worsens to the point where her life is in imminent danger, doctors would be allowed to proceed with an intervention with the objective of protecting Beatriz's life and attempting to save that of the baby.

BLOCK: This woman, Beatriz, is in her 26th week of pregnancy. And as I understand it, the fetus has anencephaly. In other words, it's missing part of the brain and skull. Is that right?

ZABLUDOVSKY: That's correct.

BLOCK: Would there be other cases that have come up in El Salvador like this in which an abortion has been allowed? Is there any precedent?

ZABLUDOVSKY: Well, in 1997, the Salvadoran penal code was modified to eliminate any exceptions to the abortion ban. But it gets a bit nebulous in practice because when pregnant women are in imminent danger in El Salvador, doctors are allowed to prematurely induce birth. But it is not called an abortion. And the difference is how close to death she is and the motivation behind the procedure. But the region is known for having strict abortion legislation, and we can see that clearly in Beatriz's case.

But over the last five years or so, there has been a shift toward loosening restrictions. For example, in Mexico City and Uruguay, abortion was legalized for the first trimester. Colombia, Brazil, Argentina has relaxed restrictions in recent years as well in cases of rape or when the fetus is expected to die, for example.

BLOCK: What happens next in this case? Are there other options for Beatriz? In other words, for example, could she travel outside the country?

ZABLUDOVSKY: She could. Her lawyer told me that several U.S. hospitals had offered to do the procedure, but he wouldn't say which ones. If Beatriz were to do that, she would need to get a humanitarian visa. She doesn't have one yet. And if she says in El Salvador, it seems like she will have to wait it out until the point where doctors can say, you're facing imminent danger. We can now do an intervention.

BLOCK: Well, after the court in El Salvador ruled that she could not have an abortion, what was the reaction from her legal team?

ZABLUDOVSKY: Her legal team was outraged. One of her lawyers called the decision misogynistic and said that the court was placing the life of the anencephalic baby, which has virtually no chance of survival, over Beatriz's life.

BLOCK: And on the other side, reaction from opponents of abortion?

ZABLUDOVSKY: Oh, they've been citing it as proof that El Salvador respects life from conception.

BLOCK: I've been talking with New York Times reporter Karla Zabludovsky. Karla, thank you very much.

ZABLUDOVSKY: Thank you so much.

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