The Guardian: El Salvador abortion controversy shows lack of progress on Cairo agenda

by Luisa Cabal, Vice President of Programs

"The treatment of a 22-year-old pregnant woman in El Salvador who was repeatedly denied potentially life-saving medical care due to the country's absolute abortion ban has caused worldwide outrage.

The woman, known as Beatriz, has lupus and kidney disease, and the foetus she carried, missing parts of its skull and brain, posed a real threat to her life. Yet Beatriz endured a 14-week wait as the Salvadoran supreme court repeatedly denied her permission to end her pregnancy, even though it could save her life. Only under intense pressure from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights did Salvadoran officials find a legal loophole enabling Beatriz's doctors to perform an emergency caesarean, after which the foetus died.

Beatriz's plight is not uncommon under El Salvador's harsh abortion ban, which does not allow women to end pregnancies even in cases of rape, incest and foetal abnormalitiy, or when their health or lives are at risk. Women who arrive at hospitals haemorrhaging are often accused of attempting an abortion, and the judicial system is quick to sentence women to up to 30 years in prison for crimes they haven't committed.

International law has long established that denying reproductive health services to women in life-threatening situations is a violation of human rights. If that's the case, then why do countries such as El Salvador continue to get away with it?

In large part, it's because there is insufficient accountability for countries that deny women their fundamental rights.

On Sunday, delegates from the UN, governments and civil society will gather in The Hague for a four-day conference to try to make progress on this problem. The event is part of a comprehensive process taking place at the UN ahead of the 20th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in September 2014. The aim is to review and assess progress towards goals aimed at ensuring women's reproductive rights.

When the ICPD convened in Cairo in 1994, it was the first time countries came together to affirm that reproductive rights are human rights, and that states have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil those rights for all citizens. These 179 countries committed to ensuring women's reproductive autonomy and to providing women the resources they need to choose the number and spacing of their children."

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