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“Torture”: El Salvador’s Abortion Ban Condemned, Highlights Horrors Facing U.S. After Roe Overturned

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As we mark International Women’s Day on March 8, we look at the criminalization of abortion with filmmaker Celina Escher, who directed the award-winning documentary Fly So Far about abortion in El Salvador, which has enforced an abortion ban since 1998, and dozens of people have been convicted and imprisoned after having miscarriages, stillbirths and other obstetric emergencies. On Monday, women’s rights activists called for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to condemn El Salvador in a case brought a decade ago by a woman, Beatriz, who died after being forced to carry a pregnancy although the fetus could not survive. Escher says El Salvador’s current policies amount to “torture for the women and girls” forced to bring nonviable and dangerous pregnancies to term against their will.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we end today’s International Women’s Day special looking at abortion bans. Five women are suing Texas after they were denied abortions, even as their pregnancies posed serious risks to their health and were nonviable, in the first such lawsuit since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

This comes as women’s rights activists Monday called for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to condemn El Salvador’s total ban on abortions, which has been in place since 1998. The demands center on a case brought a decade ago by a woman, Beatriz, who died after being forced to carry a pregnancy although the fetus could not survive.

For more, we’re joined by Celina Escher, a Salvadoran Swiss filmmaker who directed the award-winning documentary Fly So Far about the criminalization of abortion in El Salvador, where dozens have been convicted and imprisoned after having miscarriages, stillbirths and other obstetric emergencies.

Celina, welcome back to Democracy Now! It is great to have you with us. We look from the United States to El Salvador. Is El Salvador the United States’s future? Talk about the total ban, but also the resistance.

CELINA ESCHER: Hello, Amy. Thank you for having me.

Yes, exactly. In El Salvador, well, abortion is still criminalized. There is no possibility to have an abortion in El Salvador. Women are still criminalized and in prison. But there is a big resistance still happening in El Salvador, although we’re living in a state of exception since one year. People have lost their human rights, and people are being unjustly incarcerated in El Salvador. There’s a big movement who try to legalize abortion in four cases, and also in three cases, but now a feminist leader, Lorena Peña, she’s facing a lawfare. She’s being persecuted. And she’s the woman who was also in my film. She wanted to legalize abortion in four cases, and now she is facing a persecution, political persecution. So, in general, there is an authoritarian regime happening in El Salvador, and feminist activists, journalists, dissident voices, everybody is under threat. Everybody is being persecuted. And yeah, this is really a difficult situation that people are facing in El Salvador right now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Celina, could you talk about what happened with the release of your film, which was banned in El Salvador, and the stories that you hear from people who are featured in the film, if you could elaborate on those?

CELINA ESCHER: Yes, exactly. Well, last year in August, we wanted to have the cinema premiere in El Salvador. We have shown our film in 19 international film festivals, so we decided to launch the — to have the cinema premiere. But then, anti-choice organizations, 12 organizations, made a legal threat to the cinema. If they show our film in the cinema, they will make a legal threat. So, then, the cinema had to take down our film, and so we didn’t have the cinema premiere.

They tried to silence the voices and the stories of the women of the 17, but we have shown our film in community screenings together with the protagonist, Teodora Vásquez, and her organization, Mujeres Libres, across the country. So we are trying to show our film in many, many ways. But, as we see, the evangelical anti-choice groups have so much power. They are trying to silence us and trying to silence the stories of the women.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Talk more, Celina, about the origins of this law. You mentioned, in 1998, this new abortion law. How did it begin? And where do you see it going now?

CELINA ESCHER: Well, abortion was legal in three cases before 1998. Then it was a total ban of abortion in all cases. It was not possible to have an abortion even if your life is in danger, in cases of rape or the fetus will not survive outside the womb. So, in no cases was legal. And feminist organizations have been trying to legalize abortion since more than 30 years, but it has been really difficult and almost impossible to legalize abortion in El Salvador.

Now a feminist organization have brought the case of Beatriz in front of the Inter-American Court, and we are hoping that with this case will open up for the cases of the other women, and it will force El Salvador to change the abortion law. Last year, also the case of Manuela was held in front of the Inter-American Court, and the Inter-American Court ruled in favor of Manuela, saying that El Salvador is guilty for all human rights violations committed against Manuela. But the government has done nothing, and they don’t want the — Bukele doesn’t want to change the abortion law. He already said that he will keep the life that begins — the life begins at conception. So, he only wants to be reelected, but he doesn’t want to change the abortion law. So we will try with this case to open up and to make more pressure to the Salvadoran government.

AMY GOODMAN: Celina, tell us about these cases that are before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the case of Manuela, that you just mentioned, and Beatriz.

CELINA ESCHER: Well, Manuela was a woman who lived in the countryside. She could not read and write. And she was pregnant. She had cancer, and then she had a miscarriage because of the cancer. Then she was criminalized in the hospital. She was sentenced to 30 years of prison, and she died in prison, leaving two sons behind.

And what we want is justice for Manuela and justice also for Beatriz. They are both women who lived in a situation of poverty. They needed to have an abortion. For example, the other example, the case of Beatriz, she had lupus, and she was pregnant, but the fetus had no brain, so it didn’t have any chance of survival outside the womb. So she asked the courts to have an abortion, but they denied her, and so the state forced [Beatriz] to keep the pregnancy. And it was torture for her for seven months. It was really torture for her. And then she gave birth with a C-section, and then the fetus died after many — like after three hours. And then she died years later because of the health issues she had.

So, the state is forcing women to keep pregnancy, also forcing young girls who have been raped to keep their pregnancy. This means torture for the women and girls. So, this is these two cases —



AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute, but I wanted to ask you to put El Salvador in the context of Central America and Latin America overall, where you have, what, Argentina and Colombia legalizing abortion. What’s happening in Central America overall?

CELINA ESCHER: Well, after in Colombia and Argentina abortion was legalized, in El Salvador — well, in Central America happened a major setback, because more and more conservative, right-wing, evangelical politicians who are in power are causing a major setback in reproductive rights. For example, in Honduras, it is not even legal to decriminalize abortion, not even to talk about it in the parliament. In Guatemala, they made a law, a family law, that also said that abortion is totally prohibited. In Nicaragua, abortion is also totally prohibited. And El Salvador is the country that has most extreme law, where women are —

AMY GOODMAN: And Mexico?

CELINA ESCHER: — unjustly criminalized for 30 and 40, 50 years of prison for aggravated homicide.

AMY GOODMAN: And Mexico? We have just 10 seconds.

CELINA ESCHER: And in Mexico — well, in Mexico now, it’s legal to have an abortion, and it’s anti-constitutional to criminalize abortion, though at least this, it’s happening, progressive.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Celina Escher is a Salvadoran Swiss filmmaker and the director of the award-winning documentary Fly So Far, speaking to us from Stockholm, Sweden.

That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Have a productive, successful, happy International Women’s Day.

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