The case of “Beatriz” in El Salvador had all the makings of a tragic political fable: a young, dying woman; an apparently repressive, quasi-theocratic state; a desperate plea.
The 22-year-old woman, suffering from lupus and kidney failure, argued that her pregnancy was killing her, and that she required a “therapeutic” or “medically necessary” abortion — in violation of El Salvador’s strict abortion ban.
When the country’s Supreme Court handed down its 4–1 decision in late May, news outlets ran outraged headlines: “‘Beatriz’ of El Salvador, Denied a Lifesaving Abortion” (New York Times
); “Beatriz: El Salvador Woman in Need of an Abortion Fighting for Her Life” (Policymic.com); “El Salvador: Supreme Court Toys with Young Mother’s Life” (Amnesty International).
Abortion advocates compared the case to that of Savita Halappanavar, who died in Ireland last year when her 17-week-old baby died in the womb, causing her to miscarry. She had been denied an abortion in accordance with Ireland’s ban on the practice.
The International Planned Parenthood Federation, Reproductive Health Reality Check, and Women’s Link Worldwide set up an online petition for Beatriz, encouraging signers to “Stand with Beatriz, her husband, and their [14-month-old] son.” What of Beatriz’s unborn child? To make the young mother’s situation more difficult, he had been diagnosed with anencephaly, a birth defect in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull. Most babies with anencephaly die within hours of being born.
But if abortion advocates were hoping that Beatriz could be their standard-bearer for a push for legal abortion in Latin America, the outcome of the case has left them empty-handed. Twenty-seven weeks into her pregnancy — 17 weeks after she first demanded a “medically necessary” abortion — Beatriz delivered her baby by induced Caesarean section. The child died five hours later, but Beatriz is recovering.
Some abortion advocates have claimed a limited victory: “Beatriz, El Salvador Woman, Finally Has Emergency Abortion,” proclaimed Frisky.com. Jodi Jacobson, editor-in-chief of Reproductive Health Reality Check, accused “the Catholic Church and the international anti-choice movement” of “engaging in linguistic gymnastics” to suggest that Beatriz’s delivery was not an abortion. “Beatriz had a hysterotomy,” Jacobson declared. A hysterotomy is a type of abortion in which a baby is removed from the womb through an incision in the abdomen slightly smaller than that created during a Caesarean-section delivery.
But this is not what happened.