CRR in the Field: Alejandra Cárdenas

Since 1992, the Center's innovative legal work has fundamentally transformed the landscape of reproductive health and rights worldwide, and has already strengthened laws and policies in more than 50 countries. CRR in the Field is a personal look at the various ways Center staff interacts with plaintiffs, policy makers, governing bodies, and supporters at home and abroad to further the fight for reproductive rights.

Name: Alejandra Cárdenas
Position: Legal Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean
Reporting from: El Salvador

Alejandra recently traveled to El Salvador to attend and present at the conference, “Decriminalization of Abortion, a matter of Justice for Women.” Read more about her experience, and how she hopes her visit will make a lasting difference in the region.


Q: What conference were you attending in El Salvador?

A:  I was attending the Latin American Conference, “Decriminalization of Abortion, a matter of Justice for Women.” Though there were people participating from other Central American countries, as well as participants from Mexico, the emphasis of the seminar was on four countries with total abortion bans: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic.  These are countries in which women are dying because they can’t interrupt a pregnancy even if they need critical treatment for cancer or other possibly fatal diseases. For example, women with ectopic pregnancies must wait until their fallopian tubes are destroyed in order to get treatment. Women’s bodies are being so aggressively scrutinized that a woman who goes to a hospital completely unconscious after having complications in labor, can be accused of murder.


Q: What did you hope to achieve through your presentations at the conference?

A: I gave two presentations. One aimed at discussing the ways in which lawyers could introduce international law standards in their national litigation strategies. The second presentation did a comparative analysis of the positive and negative aspects of litigating reproductive rights cases before the United Nations Treaty Monitory Bodies as opposed to litigating them before the Inter-American Human Rights System.

My hope was that my presentations—along with the workshops and meetings I held—would inspire local lawyers to force the national courts to take into account international human rights standards. I also hope that lawyers begin to explore options to start increasing pressure from different international human rights bodies by filing cases that will make people aware of the dire consequences that the criminalization of abortion brings into women's lives. The culmination of these efforts will, hopefully, force these States to change their abortion laws to put them in accordance with human rights standards, restoring the full respect and protection of women´s right to life and health.


Q: What are the major issues around criminal bans on abortion in Central America that were identified at the conference?

A: Women are dying or are being left to live with grave health conditions because they could not get access to an abortion. For example,  a woman with advanced lupus, a disease in which the immune system fails and starts attacking healthy cells and tissues, is losing the battle, and is far behind on the list for a kidney transplant. This woman gets pregnant, and every doctor knows that her body won’t make it, and probably the fetus won’t develop well either. Because of the criminal ban on abortion, none of that matters; she will have to continue with the pregnancy at all costs. This case happened in the Dominican Republic.

Another big issue is that in countries like El Salvador, the State is so obsessed with prosecuting women who had abortions that the emergency rooms in hospitals are treated like crime scenes.  Often, a doctor won’t even take minimal measures to determine what happened to a woman that arrives with a serious hemorrhage before denouncing her to the police. In countries like El Salvador, it is even dangerous to have a complication in labor. Many rural women don’t give birth at home and sometimes arrive to the hospital after complications before or during labor with a resulting stillbirth or a fetus that was delivered but died after birth. The healthcare providers usually automatically accuse these women of murder. Though some of them have been released through the intervention of local lawyers, there are still a lot of them imprisoned for up to 30 years for a crime that they did not commit.   

Q: What are the challenges to addressing these issues?

A: The main challenge continues to be the incredible political pressure that the national hierarchy of the Christian churches have over lawmakers and politicians in general.  The fact that these churches believe that forcing a pregnancy to term is more important than protecting the most basic human rights of the women that are obliged to carry them, is a travesty.

Another challenge is that the justice system is dominated by very negative stereotypes of women’s role in society. They see women primarily as a childbearing entity.


Q: How did the conference help to address some of those challenges?

A: The conference was very comprehensive in its approach. We talked about legal issues and legal strategies, but also about advocacy and communication strategies to teach the population why these abortion laws need to be changed. There was a good discussion about the religious and ethical aspects of our work as reproductive rights activists. We know that we need to work on different fronts because ultimately the goal is for people to be sensitized to the fact that reproductive rights are human rights.


Q: What is the Center doing to fight against criminal bans on abortion across the region?

A: We are litigating and providing technical support in strategic litigation both at the national and international level. Throughout the years, we have pioneered a human rights approach when thinking about reproductive rights, and that has transformed the discourse in a positive way. Step by step, we are de-stigmatizing and giving a human face to the issue of abortion, showing why people should care and why it is critical for women to have control over their reproductive capacity.