Four US activists — including a Northampton grandmother — walked free on Tuesday following a brief trial for unlawfully entering the embassy of El Salvador in Washington to protest that country’s draconian abortion laws. Abortion is forbidden in El Salvador, even in the case of rape, incest, and risk to the life of the mother. At least 129 women are reported to have been prosecuted on pregnancy-related charges between 2001 and 2011. At least 17 have been handed prison sentences of up to 40 years for giving birth too early, or miscarrying under conditions that officials suspected were self-induced. A global campaign to free the so-called “El Salvador 17” – or “Las 17” – won a partial victory in March when one of them was pardoned. Another was reportedly ordered released after serving 12 years. But the rest have been condemned to remain in squalid prison cells for decades, leaving other children behind. This is the injustice that US activists hoped to highlight during their own brief trials before a US district court judge, who fined them each $50.
It’s admirable that American activists are calling attention to injustice in El Salvador. But they did not have to look overseas to find examples of women being sent to jail for miscarrying or trying to end their pregnancies. In March, an Indiana woman named Purvi Patel was sentenced to 20 years in prison for child neglect and feticide after she showed up bleeding in the emergency room. In order to get a conviction in court, prosecutors used e-mails she had written to a company that sells abortion drugs online. A 23-year-old Georgia woman named Kenlissia Jones was recently jailed and charged with murder after she gave birth in a car on her way to the hospital to a child who died minutes later. She had taken a prescription abortion pill ordered online from a company in Canada. Although the murder charges were dropped last month, she remains charged with possession of a dangerous drug. And in 2011, an Idaho woman named Jennie Linn McCormack was brought before a judge for taking pills she bought online that induced a miscarriage – a crime punishable in that state by five years in prison. She’d told a friend about her ordeal, who reported it to police. McCormack fought the charges, and eventually won in court. But her case illustrates a disturbing trend: Some states are passing laws that are far too close to El Salvador’s.
One thing all these women have in common is that they live in areas where obtaining a safe abortion is extremely difficult, if not impossible. For women who lack financial resources, the right to an abortion is theoretical at best. This is perhaps the greatest injustice of all: Even the most rigid laws against abortion don’t prevent wealthy women traveling to places where abortions are safe and legal. The full brunt of restrictive laws on abortion falls on the poor. That’s true in El Salvador, and the United States.