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.
“Abortion is all about the intent to kill,” says the Latino-outreach director for National Right to Life, Raimundo Rojas. “But that was not the case here. When the child was delivered, he became a patient. He was given top-notch medical care. Had the child not been so sick, he would have survived.”
The unwillingness by abortion advocates to acknowledge a difference between an abortion, where the aim is to kill the child (“terminate the fetus,” abortion advocates might say), and an induced delivery, where every effort is made to save the child, is disturbing. In cases where pregnancy threatens the mother’s life, opponents of abortion have long recognized that treatment intended to save the mother, but which may kill the child, can be morally acceptable. The distinguishing factor is intent. But that is a subtle moral distinction that abortion advocates in Beatriz’s case, and in others like it, are unwilling to make. And it reveals much about where their priorities lie.
“All these groups talk about is the abortion — all they care about is the abortion,” Rojas says of pro-abortion groups operating in Latin America, increasingly a battleground between pro-life groups and their pro-abortion opponents. “These are people who believe that women in the fields, in the swamps, can achieve parity with their sisters in the big cities simply by having access to abortion.” Acknowledging that Beatriz’s case was successfully resolved without recourse to abortion detracts from the storyline that women in the Third World who lack access to legal abortion are oppressed or in grave danger.
Marianne Mollmann, a senior policy adviser for Amnesty International’s International Secretariat, writing for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, claims: “Where abortion is illegal, it is equally — if not more — prevalent than in jurisdictions where it is legal. Also where abortion is illegal, it is much more likely to be unsafe.” It is well documented that the number of abortions in America increased dramatically after Roe v. Wade, and if the number of abortions has hit an all-time low in the past five years, it is not because of lowered barriers; recent years have seen states pass increasingly restrictive laws against abortion. As for Mollman’s second claim, David Reardon, director of the Elliot Institute, observes, “The basic flaw in this argument is the false assumption that a change in legal status can make safe a medical act that is inherently unsafe.” That such a thing as “safe” abortion exists is a tenuous assertion at best, as investigations in the wake of Kermit Gosnell’s “house of horrors” repeatedly show.
But Rojas says that “reproductive rights,” to use the parlance of abortion advocates, obscure more pressing issues: “These are women who worry about getting potable water.”
And as for who actually helps women, Beatriz’s case is instructive: “The medical help she received was because of the pro-life groups in El Salvador,” Rojas notes. “They got this girl into a hospital and got her treatment.” Their pro-abortion counterparts, meanwhile, “objectify and shamelessly exploit these poor women in Latin America.” And when the mother is no longer politically useful, “she will soon be forgotten.”
Moreover, Rojas adds, abortion supporters, in their push for legalization, are willing to undermine national sovereignty, regional mores, and local customs. Pro-abortion groups, the United Nations, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and a host of other organizations attempted to sway El Salvador’s authorities to overturn its laws. “Do countries have a right to their laws?” Rojas asks. “Or do these outside groups . . . have a right to decide what is or what is not unjust law?” In Beatriz’s case, he says, “national laws were protected.” It was a success not only for pro-life advocates but also for the citizens of El Salvador, who saw the rule of law in their country upheld.
Still, Rojas’s focus is not on the politics but on the people: “This isn’t a victory — there is no victory here; a baby is dead, a mother is mourning.” Yet even amid tragedy, Beatriz’s case offers a glimmer of hope to those working to protect every life in the Third World.
— Ian Tuttle is an intern at National Review.