Draconian Ban on Abortion in El Salvador Targeted by Global Campaign

One of her defence lawyers hugs Carmelina Pérez when an appeals court in eastern El Salvador declares her innocent of homicide, on Apr. 23. She had been sentenced to 30 years in prison in June 2014 after suffering a miscarriage. In El Salvador women, especially the poor, suffer from the penalisation of abortion under any circumstances. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

One of her defence lawyers hugs Carmelina Pérez when an appeals court in eastern El Salvador declares her innocent of homicide, on Apr. 23. She had been sentenced to 30 years in prison in June 2014 after suffering a miscarriage. In El Salvador women, especially the poor, suffer from the penalisation of abortion under any circumstances. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

By Edgardo Ayala
SAN SALVADOR, Apr 30 2015 (IPS)

International and local human rights groups are carrying out an intense global campaign to get El Salvador to modify its draconian law that criminalises abortion and provides for prison terms for women.

Doctors, fearing prosecution, often report poor women who end up in the public hospitals with complications from miscarriages, some of whom are sent to jail for supposedly undergoing illegal abortions.

There are currently 15 women in prison who were sentenced for alleged abortions after reported miscarriages. At least 129 women were prosecuted for abortions between 2000 and 2011, according to local organisations.

The campaign by Amnesty International and local human rights groups collected 300,000 signatures on a petition demanding a modification of El Salvador’s total ban on abortion.

This Central American country of 6.3 million people is one of the few nations in the world to ban abortion under any circumstances and penalise it with heavy jail terms.

The campaign was launched when a woman was freed by an appeals court. She had been found guilty of homicide and spent 15 months in prison.

Carmelina Pérez wept tears of joy when a judge declared her innocent on Apr. 23, after a hearing in a court in the eastern city of La Unión, the capital of the department of the same name.

“I’m happy, because I will be back with my son and with my family, free,” a still-handcuffed Pérez told IPS. She has a three-year-old son in her native Honduras.

Pérez, 21, was working as a domestic employee in the town of Concepción de Oriente, in La Unión, when she suffered a miscarriage. She ended up sentenced in June 2014 to 30 years in prison for homicide – a sentence that was overturned on appeal.

Of the 17 women imprisoned in similar cases since 1998, 15 are still in prison.

That was the year the legislature modified the penal code to make abortion illegal under all circumstances, even when the mother’s life is at risk, the fetus is deformed or unviable, or the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape.

Article 1 of the Salvadoran constitution was amended in January 1999 to protect the right to life from the moment of conception, making it even more difficult to reform the ban on abortion.

Carmen Guadalupe Vásquez, 25, was another one of the 17 women imprisoned, who are referred to by rights groups as “Las 17”. She had been sentenced to 25 years after being raped and suffering a miscarriage. She spent seven years in prison but was pardoned by the legislature in January 2015, after the Supreme Court recognised prosecutorial errors in her trial.

And in November 2014, 47-year-old Mirna Ramírez was released after serving out her 12-year sentence.

At least five other women have been accused and are in prison awaiting final sentencing.

Most of these women sought medical care in public hospitals after suffering miscarriages or stillbirths, but were reported by hospital staff fearful of being accused of practicing abortions. Many were handcuffed to the hospital bed and sent to prison directly, under police custody.

“The total ban on abortion is a violation of the human rights of girls and women in El Salvador, such as the rights to health, life and justice,” Amnesty International Americas director Erika Guevara said at an Apr. 22 forum in San Salvador.

Guevara added that El Salvador’s law on abortion “criminalises the country’s poorest women.”

Although there are no recent figures, a 2013 study carried out by the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizens’ Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Abortion) found that 129 women were accused of abortion between 2000 and 2011.

Of this total, 49 were convicted – 23 for abortion and 26 for homicide in different degrees. In these cases, the prosecutor’s office argued that the fetuses were born alive and the mother was responsible for their death.

Of the 129 women accused, seven percent were illiterate, 40 percent had only a primary school education, 11.6 percent had a high school education and just 4.6 had made it to the university. And 51.1 percent of the accused had no income while 31.7 had small incomes.

In El Salvador, it is no secret that middle- and upper-class women have access to safe abortions in private clinics, and are neither reported by the doctors nor arrested and charged.

In its petition to modify the ban, Amnesty International demanded that El Salvador ensure access to safe and legal abortion in cases of rape or incest, where the woman’s health or life is at risk, and where the fetus is malformed or unlikely to survive.

Only the Vatican, Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, Surinam and Chile have total bans on abortion, although in Chile the legislature is studying a bill that would legalise therapeutic abortion (under the previously listed circumstances).

Delegates from Amnesty International, the Agrupación Ciudadana, and the Center for Reproductive Rights met on Apr. 22 with representatives of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, to demand a reform of the law and deliver the 300,000 signatures.

They also met with the presidents of the legislature and judiciary.

“There is at least a willingness to talk, we see a certain openness,” activist Paula Ávila with the Center for Reproductive Rights, an international organisation based in the United States, told IPS.

Ávila added that as women who have suffered these cases increasingly speak out and tell their stories, the state will have to accept the need to sit down and talk.

The Center, along with the Agrupación Ciudadana and the Feminist Collective for Local Development, demanded a response from the Salvadoran state to a communication sent on Apr. 20 by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR) urging the state to recognise its responsibility in the death of “Manuela”.

Manuela – who never allowed her real name to be revealed – had a stillbirth, was erroneously accused of having an abortion, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

It was later discovered that she had lymphatic cancer, a disease that can cause miscarriages. She died in prison in 2010 without being treated for her cancer.

The IACHR has accepted the case and has given the Salvadoran state three months to respond with regard to its responsibility for her death.

The debate on the flexibilisation of the total ban on abortion is marked by the “machismo” of Salvadoran society and moralistic and religious overtones, with heavy pressure from Catholic Church leaders and evangelical churches that stands in the way of political changes.

But the release of Carmelina Pérez in La Unión has given rise to hope in similar cases.

For the first time, an appeals court judge dismissed the statement of the gynecologist who testified against the defendant. That decision was key in overturning her conviction.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

Opinion: Don’t Sell Sweden’s Vattenfall, Keep Coal in the Ground

Vattenfall’s lignite-fired power plant in Jaenschwalde, Germany, is Europe’s fourth biggest CO2 emitter. Credit: ©Paul Langrock/Zenit/Greenpeace

Vattenfall’s lignite-fired power plant in Jaenschwalde, Germany, is Europe’s fourth biggest CO2 emitter. Credit: ©Paul Langrock/Zenit/Greenpeace

By Hanna Leghammar
STOCKHOLM, Apr 30 2015 (IPS)

The Swedish government is in the process of pondering an important decision — whether to sell the vast lignite reserves of the state-owned Vattenfall energy giant or ensure that they stay in the ground. The decision will define Sweden’s commitment to tackling climate change.

Just a few days ago, on Apr. 27, Vattenfall stockholders gathered for their Annual General Meeting where the issue of selling the company was high on the agenda, according to Swedish radio station Ekot.“States have a responsibility to start leaving their fossil fuel reserves in the ground. What people all over Sweden and Europe are demanding is not only an end to expansion, but also the action of leaving them untouched” – Annika Jacobson, Greenpeace Sweden

“We are in the middle of a process to sell,” Vattenfall’s executive director Magnus Hall, who hopes to reach a deal already this year, was reported as saying. According to Hall, the Swedish government has given a clear mandate and support to Vattenfall in its plan to sell its ‘dirty’ operations.

‘Vattenfall’ translates into ‘waterfall’ and the company’s logo is an image of a sun and beautiful waves. While it plays on this imagery to build its brand, Vattenfall is emitting huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere every day.

The company’s lignite mines and power plants in Germany – including the Jänschwalde coal power plant which is Europe’s fourth biggest CO2 emitter – are responsible for twice the amount of Sweden’s total annual carbon emissions.

The Swedish government is committed to keeping the rise in global temperature below 2℃ which, at global level, requires leaving 82 percent of fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Through Vattenfall, the Swedish state is the owner of more than one billion tonnes of carbon.

Now is the time for Sweden to assume responsibility and ensure that emissions from these unburnable reserves are never released.

Over recent years, Sweden’s actions have shown that it has the potential to play a leading role in transforming our economies to power the renewable future we need. But Vattenfall’s conduct – clinging on to an outdated business model – taints this picture.

Aerial view of Vattenfall’s brown coal (lignite) open pit mine in Jaenschwalde, Germany. Credit: ©Greenpeace/J Henry Fair

Aerial view of Vattenfall’s brown coal (lignite) open pit mine in Jaenschwalde, Germany. Credit: ©Greenpeace/J Henry Fair

When Germany decided to phase out nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Vattenfall faced a major loss of potential profits and sued the German state. The company’s coal operations across Europe are also taking a financial hit as the coal industry worldwide has entered a huge slump. More than half of Vattenfall’s coal power stations are old and particularly polluting.

In the run-up to the Swedish general elections last year, the parties that now make up Sweden’s ruling coalition committed themselves to stop the lignite expansion of Vattenfall, thanks to pressure from Greenpeace and Swedish environmental groups.

“States have a responsibility to start leaving their fossil fuel reserves in the ground,” says Annika Jacobson from Greenpeace Sweden, who has just launched a Europe-wide petition to that effect with partners at 350.org and Skiftet [Democracy in Motion]. “What people all over Sweden and Europe are demanding is not only an end to expansion, but also the action of leaving them untouched.”

In this crucial year for climate action – with the next U.N. Climate Change Conference scheduled in Paris in December – Sweden has the opportunity to raise its head and translate ambition into action by stranding its dirty coal assets.

Not selling Vattenfall and focusing on achieving a just transition to renewable energy would be a bold and unprecedented move by a nation state which has built up its own wealth and climate resilience on a fossil-fuelled economy. This would pose a challenge to other states, considering the impending deflation of the carbon bubble.

If, as Ekot reported, Vattenfall is about to be sold, this would be flying in the face of the overwhelming majority of Swedish people who want strong climate leadership from their government, giving the country the opportunity to act on its moral responsibility to keep fossil fuels underground.

A majority of Germans also want coal to be phased out – and there is fierce resistance to Vattenfall’s lignite mining and power plants in Germany’s Lusatia region.

“The earlier promise by Sweden not to expand lignite mining in Lusatia has given hope to a community of around 3,500 people that faced forced relocations as their villages stood to be destroyed,” says Falk Hermenau, a grassroots activist from Cottbus, the largest town in the region.

“By committing now to keep its coal in the ground, Sweden has the opportunity to be a driving force for a coal phase out in Germany and inject new momentum for climate action across the world,” he argues

The rapidly growing movement against fossil fuel extraction and climate disruption – and a steady flow of news reports indicating the end of the fossil fuel era – have injected a momentum that can change the dynamics in the months before the U.N. climate talks in December.

Any meaningful deal in Paris will need to require all nations to leave fossil fuel reserves in the ground – and people from all over the world are demanding this kind of leadership. Sweden can and must lead the way by committing itself not to sell Vattenfall’s lignite operations and rather #keepitintheground.

Edited by Phil Harris    

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service.