An El Salvador woman was found not guilty on Monday after spending nearly three years in prison for a miscarriage. Evelyn Hernandez said she did not know that she was pregnant at the time of the stillbirth, and that the pregnancy had resulted from rape, but was nonetheless given a 30-year sentence for aggravated homicide at her first trial in 2017.
A strictly Roman Catholic country, El Salvador has been notoriously harsh on abortion since passing an all-circumstances abortion ban in 1998. Yet abortions still happen daily – the well-off pay private doctors for clandestine procedures, the middle class pay for medicines they can re-purpose as abortifacients, and the poor reach for coat hangers, battery acid and rat poison. Failing that, there’s always suicide. According to Her Body, Our Laws, a book on the subject by Michelle Oberman, three out of eight maternal deaths in El Salvador in 2018 were suicides by girls under 19.
El Salvador is one of the worst places to be an unhappily pregnant woman, but parts of the United States are trying their hardest to make it into the running. Six states – Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Ohio – have passed laws banning abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, and Alabama intends to make aborting any pregnancy other than one that puts the mother’s life at risk a felony punishable by up to 99 years or life in prison. Unless the lawsuit brought against it by Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) succeeds, that law will take effect this November.
Some states are pushing back. Illinois passed the Reproductive Health Act in June, repealing previous abortion restrictions in the state and requiring health insurance companies to cover abortive procedures. New York passed its own Reproductive Health Act in January, codifying Roe v Wade rulings into state law, and Nevada passed the Trust Nevada Women Act in May. The Guttmacher Institute, a leading nonprofit reproductive health research and policy organization, also recognized California, Maine, Vermont, and Washington as having “either moved or enacted abortion protections” this year.
But more permissive laws in Illinois don’t help those trapped in Alabama.
As much as the anti-choice “pro-life” movement claims it’s always been here, the truth is that it’s a relatively recent phenomenon borne more out of political canniness than moral superiority. Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion and Mandel Family Professor in the Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College, writes that the movement was engineered by religious conservative Paul Weyrich as an attempt to persuade evangelicals to vote right en masse. Five years after Roe v Wade, Weyrich capitalized on a series of caustic anti-abortion propaganda films called Whatever Happened to the Human Race? to galvanize evangelical Christians around the issue. Other Conservative activists, like Phyllis Schlafly, finagled party talking points into anti-abortion arguments, claiming, for example, that lower taxes could decrease abortion rates by preventing Medicaid from paying for procedures for the working class. The abortion debate has been a convenient smokescreen, and an easy way to drum up support, for the right’s pet projects since the mid-70’s.
Even taken at face value, there’s nothing “pro-life” about the anti-choice movement. The same people who call women who abort “murderers” and “baby killers” are happy to defund homeless shelters, social support nets, and public schools, thereby ensuring the deaths of living children while standing in defence of the unborn… assuming a clump of cells smaller than a blueberry counts as any sort of child at all. No matter anyone’s point of view on the matter, we have a thing called “bodily autonomy”, meaning even corpses get to choose what happens to their organs. Anyone facing the possibility of pregnancy – a process which can change the body’s chemical composition, genetic makeup, and physical structure, in addition to causing incredible stress, trauma, and pain – should have the final say on whether they want to see it through, no matter what strangers choose to think of their decision. That’s something anti-choicers don’t seem to get.
Ignorance is a big part of the anti-choice worldview, especially for the politicians who are writing the majority of the anti-abortion laws. See 2012 Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin, who famously claimed that the female body has “ways to try to shut that whole [pregnancy] thing down” in cases of “legitimate” rape, or Idaho’s Republican State Representative Vito Barbieri, who in 2015 wondered if women could receive remote gynecological exams by swallowing small cameras. Making politicians undergo comprehensive sex education before drafting reproductive policy could keep dangerously ill-informed bills from reaching office.
Better sex education would help voters, too. With a better understanding of how pregnancy works, taught from a non-denominational, health and wellness perspective, citizens could call out ignorant missteps both on and off the floor. Anti-choice rhetoric would be forced away from malicious falsehoods like “abortions increase your risk of cancer” and “women who have abortions are more likely to develop post-partum depression.” Better sex ed would also help to keep women, especially young girls, from getting unwanted pregnancies in the first place.
Similarly, destigmatizing and demystifying pregnancy would allow us to better discuss the issue. It’s difficult to debate a complicated topic like abortion with people who insist that everyone should be grateful for the gift of motherhood.
Moving back to the broader political stage, we need better voter education. Too many people vote for candidates based on one issue, without paying any heed to their policies in other areas. 81% of white evangelical Christians and 53% of white women voted for Trump, which the Atlantic chalked up to his (most recent) stance on abortion. This was despite his comments about being able to grab women’s genitals at will, which the news site said were “offputting” to many social conservatives. More than that, voters must question politicians’ rationales for supporting anti-abortion laws. Iowa Rep. Steve King, for example, has thrown his weight behind strict anti-abortion measures, because he believes allowing women to use birth control will destroy “our civilization”, creating a “void” which will be filled with “somebody else’s babies.” Even if a hypothetical voter agrees with King’s stance on abortion, his thinly-veiled racism is not an acceptable justification.
As pro-life-leaning voters move away from anti-choice politicians, however, it’s critically important to fix the voting system as a whole, to give pro-choice voters an equal voice in the democratic process. We cannot be said to have a truly representative government if voters’ voices are silenced by gerrymandering, strict voting ID laws, and other means of voter suppression.
In the meantime, lawsuits like those brought by Planned Parenthood and the ACLU against Alabama and pro-choice protecting bills like those passed in Illinois and New York are important. Even if they don’t help everyone, they set an important precedent, provide a safe haven for those who can escape to it, and prove to America that change is possible.
In El Salvador, more than 20 women remain imprisoned for abortion-related crimes. But they aren’t silenced, and they aren’t alone. Lawyers like Dennis Muñoz are working tirelessly to retry their cases and repeal their sentences. Organizations like the Women’s Equality Center and Amnesty International are drawing attention to their cause, making sure they aren’t forgotten behind bars. And the women themselves are standing strong, refusing to be made ashamed of their medical history. It would be easy to buckle under the judgmental gaze of the nation, but these women continue to press forward, reaching for the justice they deserve. And after three years, Evelyn Hernandez is finally walking free.