A group of experts at the United Nations said Monday El Salvador's Congress should decriminalize abortion in specific circumstances to protect women's rights and bring the country in line with international human rights standards.
The U.N. Working Groups and Special Rapporteurs urged the Central American to "seize an exceptional opportunity to advance the protection of the human rights of women and girls" by reviewing the Article 133 of its penal code which outlines penalties for women who seek or cause an abortion.
"We urge lawmakers to seize this unique opportunity to make it a turning point in the history of women's rights in the country," said the group.
The international call comes as El Salvador's Congress considers a reform to allow an abortion in four specific cases: if the mother's life is in danger, if the pregnancy is the result of rape, if the pregnancy is the result of statutory rape or rape of a minor, or if the baby will not survive.
The group said a total ban on abortion, like the one currently held in El Salvador, goes against international human rights standards and is likely to increase the number of women seeking risky abortions in underground clinics to terminate their pregnancy.
"This situation violates the most basic human rights of women and girls: the right to life, the right to health, the right to non-discrimination, the right over their own bodies and human dignity," the U.N. experts said.
Abortion was outlawed in El Salvador in 1998 — even if a woman’s life is in danger, the fetus is deformed or the pregnancy is the result of rape. The crime carries a prison sentence of up to eight years, but it is often treated as a homicide, adding a sentence of up to four decades in jail.
The ban effectively prioritizes the life of the fetus over the mother’s by denying women the right to safeguard their own health in cases of pregnancy complications or other medical issues. As many as dozens of women have died preventable deaths as a result of the ban.
Criminalization also makes women afraid to seek medical attention when they suffer any complication during a pregnancy, the U.N. experts warned, as women have even been jailed for suffering miscarriages after being reported by medical professionals when they go to the hospital.
"The criminalization of the termination of pregnancy imposes an intolerable cost on the women, their families and the society," said the experts. "It restricts women's access to sexual and reproductive health services and information."
The group indicated that the economic and social cost of an abortion falls heavily on poor women and their families since they have less access to sexual and reproductive information.
"Those most affected are almost always women living in poverty and who have little means to obtain adequate legal defense," they added. "We reiterate our call to review the sentences against all women currently serving prison terms on abortion-related charges with a view to their release."
In El Salvador, a total of 147 women were prosecuted and 49 convicted between 2000 and 2014 over accusations of illegal abortions.
Pro-choice activists have long highlighted the fact that abortion prohibition doesn’t stop women from seeking ways to end their unwanted pregnancies, but instead drives them to resort to risky underground desperate measures that are vastly less safe than legally-sanctioned health services.