[CONTENT WARNING: child rape, teen suicide, fanatical hostility to bodily autonomy and consent, extreme misogyny, and probably some other shit I could be too triggered to recall.]
In In this December 2017 photo, Salvadoran Teodora Vasquez, found guilty of what the court said was an illegal abortion via a miscarriage, arrives in a courtroom to appeal her 30-year prison sentence.
(AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
Perhaps you have heard about Louisiana’s latest bill classifying all abortions as homicides? Anyone found to help facilitate an abortion, from the person(s) performing it to the involuntary organ donor who wants or needs it will be charged with homicide, with the potential penalty of life in prison. There is no exception for rape, incest, or when fetuses are incompatible with life (e.g. anencephaly).
The bill, HB813, passed out of committee on a 7-2 vote; it now faces the full legislature, and if passed, will land on the desk of Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards. But before you entertain visions of victorious vetoes dancing around in your head, you should know that Governor Edwards has been a hardcore advocate for involuntary organ donation (by other people) as a governor, and previously as a state lawmaker. He has already signed into law one of the most draconian anti-abortion laws in the country, outlawing the procedure upon the detection of a heartbeat, which is about six weeks gestation and before many people know they are pregnant.
Naturally, opponents of inhumane barbarity and violent misogyny are concerned about the law’s potential impacts on everything from in vitro fertilization (IVF) to contraception, especially emergency contraception and IUDs. While there is precious little clarity around many related issues, we do know that pressing murder charges against people who have miscarriages or find themselves in need of ending nonviable and deadly (if untreated) ectopic pregnancies will be left up to the prosecutor’s discretion. Presumably, this will require full investigations and interrogations, although how they’ll get around federal HIPAA laws in open court is an open question.
So, you know, that’s good, right? Only an estimated 26% of pregnancies end in miscarriages, and only 2% are ectopic. So the majority of pregnant people in Louisiana will (probably) be just fine, as long as they don’t go do anything silly like try to abort a fetus that is incompatible with life – either the fetus’s or one’s own.
But it seems to me that all of this uncertainty is causing a lot of confusion and distress, when it is entirely unnecessary. For answers, we need look no further than El Salvador, where all abortions are banned with no exception for rape, incest, or threat of harm to the involuntary organ donor or the fetus.
How it works
A case reported yesterday provides a typical example: on Monday, a Salvadoran judge sentenced a woman to 30 years in prison after she suffered a miscarriage and made her way to a public hospital seeking urgent medical attention. Instead, the staff reported her to authorities. From that point on, the housewife and mother of a 7-year old daughter has been held in pre-trial detention, until her sentencing on Monday.
Easy-peasy! There’s no reason the system cannot work the same way here.
Now, I may have oversimplified the situation in El Salvador a bit. I admit I’m no expert, and there are nuances and complex factors I won’t pretend to understand. So let’s hear instead from Lisa Kowalchuk, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Guelph, who has actually researched and studied healthcare policy in El Salvador.
To understand what is at stake, we need to look at what makes El Salvador probably the worst country on earth [but not for long! -Ed.] to have an unwanted or life-threatening pregnancy, or a complicated miscarriage, especially if you are poor.
The preventable evils of the world fall disproportionately on the poor instead of the rich. It really should be the other way around: what’s good for the goose is good for…whatever a gander is. Or something like that.
The problem is not just the abortion ban itself, which El Salvador shares in common with five other Latin American and Caribbean nations.
What has made El Salvador unique on the international stage is the fanatical over-application of the law by police, prosecutors and judges.
Well, at least we don’t have any fanatics like that to worry about in our legal systems!
Among the small number of countries that maintain a complete ban, only in El Salvador has law enforcement led to women being sent to prison for 30 to 40 years. To date more than 150 women and girls have been prosecuted. More than 28 women are currently serving out cruelly long sentences.
To put these numbers in some context, the population of El Salvador (2021) is 6.52 million. The population of Louisiana (2020) is about 4.6 million, so even if the state were unfortunate and had the same crazed fanatic problem El Salvador does, those numbers could be expected to be somewhat lower. If, however, the Louisiana law catches on at the national level, it’s worth noting that New York City alone has over 8.5 million residents, with the metropolitan area surrounding it accounting for another 10 million or so. According to my Ladymath™, those numbers would grow substantially larger.
The country’s penal code mandates a 12-year sentence for women convicted of having an abortion. But if a miscarried or stillborn fetus is deemed viable by the courts, women are prosecuted for aggravated homicide.
Women have been criminalized for obstetric emergencies because judges accept contradictory or non-existent evidence that they intended to either end the pregnancy or kill an early-term fetus.
Governments in El Salvador and Louisiana apparently do not understand that one cannot prove a negative. If a pregnancy fails to result in a live birth for any reason, it falls to the accused to prove it was not caused by “aggravated homicide.” WHAT THE FUCK. (Teh logicks, yer doooin’ it rong.)
But as I said, thankfully this will only be a problem in 26-28% of pregnancies.
In addition to this clear violation of women’s civil rights, the extremist application of the law imposes harms to health and life.
For example, Salvadoran doctors have refused to intervene medically when a pregnancy endangers a woman’s life, as in the case of ectopic pregnancy. This is when a fertilized egg becomes lodged in the fallopian tube, leading to rupture and lethal internal bleeding if untreated. In such cases doctors have stood by until the tube ruptures.
[I am just going to reiterate here my original CONTENT WARNING… no joke, people.]
There are particular harms for very young girls and teens. Girls as young as nine years old have been denied therapeutic abortion.
For these children, the trauma of sexual violence is compounded by the physical risks that childbirth poses to an immature body and the terror of going through with a dangerous pregnancy.
It is also known that 13 per cent of maternal deaths in less developed countries are caused by unsafe abortions, which in turn become more frequent when abortion is illegal or unavailable.
Hundreds of clandestine abortions certainly continue to occur each year in El Salvador despite the ban. Health Ministry officials themselves acknowledge that the law and its application undermine their efforts to reduce the maternal mortality rate.
To say nothing of the maternal morbidity rate from unsafe abortions, up to and including infertility, ironically enough.
What makes this situation all the more poignant is that it only affects the poor and poorly educated.
These women and girls can’t afford care in private hospitals and clinics where doctors maintain patient confidentiality. Nor can they afford good legal counsel.
Regarding the Louisiana bill, the Forced Birth Brigades describe themselves as “overwhelmed with joy” about the prospect.
It’s probably also worth mentioning that Louisiana is a death penalty state. What could possibly go wrong?