With the release of its 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices without reference to reproductive rights, the State Department negates the lived experiences of women across the globe. A suite of human rights encompasses reproductive rights—the rights to life, personal integrity, health, privacy, education and to live free from violence and discrimination. Living free from violence and being able to access comprehensive reproductive health care, including contraception, is one of the most important factors in a person’s ability to determine their trajectory in life. However, the State Department’s claim that the term is synonymous with “abortion as a method of family planning,” per the department’s spokesperson, reduces that range of rights to a single issue. The 21 women currently imprisoned in El Salvador for obstetric complications, including still birth and miscarriages, won’t be thanking the United States any time soon for that distortion and disregard for their undue situations.
Under a draconian law that criminalizes abortion, Salvadoran women and girls are serving prison sentences of up to 50 years. PAI’s documentation of violence against women and girls in El Salvador has found girls as young as 11 being forced to bring to term pregnancies resulting from rape. Unlike earlier State Department reports, this administration does not find these girls and women—nor the countless others facing sexual violence, carrying to term unwanted pregnancies, or those facing risky abortion—worthy of mention or support in the 2018 report. Nor does it care to address the increased rate of teenage pregnancy and the high rates of unmet need for contraceptives, save for one dismissive reference to links in the report’s appendix (“For more information on maternal mortality and availability of contraception, see Appendix C”).
While the report addresses discrimination against women and sexual harassment, the fact that they are isolated from reproductive rights speaks to a willful ignorance of the full range of challenges that women and girls face. PAI’s new report, Attacked from All Sides: Violence Impedes Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in El Salvador explores how interacting forms of violence—societal, structural, collective and interpersonal—impede, if not wholly bar, women from exercising their rights to quality sexual and reproductive health services, education and information. In a country experiencing pervasive criminality that has unique impacts on women and girls, the total criminalization of abortion perpetuates systemic violence against women. The research highlights how decriminalizing abortion and tackling sentencing under the abortion law are central to removing the discriminatory practices and harmful sociocultural norms that contribute to maternal mortality and high rates of adolescent pregnancy in El Salvador.
It’s imperative for countries like the United States to use their leadership to call for protections for those most vulnerable to this cycle of violence and reproductive health barriers, rather than protection of the status quo. If the State Department bothered to analyze the situation of women’s reproductive rights in a country context, like in the case of El Salvador, it would be impossible to ignore the interconnectedness of these issues impacting women and girls and their health and lives broadly. A “sympathetic friend and strong supporter” to those seeking to advance human rights—as Secretary Pompeo’s describes the U.S.—would lead by example, reinforcing the value of investments in expanding access to reproductive health care and reducing maternal mortality and gender-based violence. However, that would necessitate having a State Department, and an administration, that is able to view women and girls as whole human beings, with their reproductive rights inseparable from their human rights. Instead, with this omission, the current U.S. government perpetuates the harmful gender norms that occur in El Salvador that limit women and girls’ bodily autonomy and their abilities to make independent decisions about their health, their lives and their futures. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, in other words.