Seriously ill woman expecting a baby with anencephaly has waited a month to learn whether she can have an abortion

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 30 April 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2814
  1. Sophie Arie
  1. 1London

One month after doctors filed a request, El Salvador’s Supreme Court has failed to rule on whether a woman at risk of dying because of a pregnancy can have an abortion.

The 21 year old woman, known only as Beatriz, is 20 weeks pregnant and risks dying. She has systemic lupus erythematosus, renal failure, and pre-eclampsia. The fetus has anencephaly, local media reports said, and is likely to die before it is born or within hours of birth.

Yet because abortion is banned under all circumstances in El Salvador, medical professionals have held back. They, and the woman, could face between 30 and 50 years in jail if they proceeded with an abortion without special authorisation from the court.

For now the court has authorised “necessary medical care” while it considers the abortion appeal.

“The delay is nothing short of cruel and inhuman. The government has a duty to ensure Beatriz can access the lifesaving treatment she needs,” said Amnesty International’s Central America researcher Esther Mayor.

Amnesty International has joined El Salvador’s minister of health and local reproduction rights activists in appealing to the court to allow the procedure urgently.

The court has requested the opinion of several institutions and is still awaiting a response from the prosecutor general’s office, without whose approval the risk of incarceration would remain.

Abortion used to be legal in El Salvador in the case of rape, incest, or a threat to the woman’s life or severe fetal abnormality. But in 1998 abortion was criminalised in all circumstances. The country’s abortions laws are among the most restrictive in the world. Nicaragua has a similarly strict law, passed in 2007, and Malta also has a total ban.

The UK campaigning group the Central American Women’s Network has reported that at least 24 women are currently serving long jail sentences for allegedly provoking an abortion when in fact they simply had premature births. Many other women are in jail for having abortions.

Church and anti-abortion groups have argued that the case has been staged to try to reopen the debate on legalising abortion in El Salvador.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2814