The End of Roe v. Wade: The El Salvador Experience

In the latest battle between pro-choicers and pro-lifers, in March of this year, South Dakota passed legislation to ban all abortions, except those that are necessary to save a woman's life.

Of course, state law cannot override the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade ruling by the Supreme Court that protects the right to an abortion under the Fourth Amendment's right to privacy. So why the new state law?

Simple. If pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood challenge South Dakota's decision in court, the issue might be taken all the way to the top. Which is exactly what the state's lawmakers hope for. With the help of pro-life Supreme Court judges like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas--as well as the recently appointed conservatives John Roberts and Samuel Alito--they believe Roe v. Wade may soon be a goner. Which could in turn trigger a landslide of anti-abortion legislation in other states.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit corporation for reproductive health research, policy analysis and public education, 18 states currently have laws in place that could be used to restrict abortions.

Illinois, Kentucky and Louisiana have so-called "trigger" laws that would come into effect as soon as Roe v. Wade has been overturned. And in 13 other states--Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin--a pre-Roe abortion ban is still on the books. In some cases, like Vermont, the ban was deemed unconstitutional by the state's Supreme Court and so might not be immediately enforceable in the event of a Roe repeal at the federal level.

While we will duck addressing the morality of one side of the underlying arguments or another, we thought a look at the possible consequences of an overturning of Roe v. Wade would be of interest.

And on that front, no place in the world provides a more useful or current model than El Salvador.

In an April 9 article titled "Pro-Life Nation," the New York Times Magazine reported: "In this new movement toward criminalization, El Salvador is in the vanguard. The array of exceptions that tend to exist even in countries where abortion is circumscribed--rape, incest, fetal malformation, life of the mother--don't apply in El Salvador. They were rejected in the late 1990's, in a period after the country's long civil war ended. The country's penal system was revamped and its constitution was amended. Abortion is now absolutely forbidden in every possible circumstance. No exceptions."

What that kind of harsh legislation can lead to is vividly described by NYT journalist Jack Hitt: "El Salvador... has not only a total ban on abortion but also an active law-enforcement apparatus--the police, investigators, medical spies, forensic vagina inspectors and a special division of the prosecutor's office responsible for Crimes Against Minors and Women, a unit charged with capturing, trying and incarcerating an unusual kind of criminal."

Generally, the abortion provider faces 6 to 12 years in prison, the woman herself 2 to 8 years, and anyone who helps her 2 to 5 years. Still, if it is deemed that the fetus was viable, prison time for the woman can be upped to 30-50 years.

Far from preventing abortions altogether, the country's strict laws have driven women to back-alley abortions and do-it-yourself attempts, with varying success.

Since their implementation, teen suicide attempts have mysteriously skyrocketed. "According to a study on attempted suicide and teen pregnancy published last year by academics at the University of El Salvador, some girls who poison their wombs with agricultural pesticide (its efficacy being a Salvadoran urban legend) would rather report the cause of their resulting hospital visit as 'attempted suicide,' which is not as felonious a crime nor as socially unbearable as abortion," states Hitt.

A popular solution among Salvadoran women is the ulcer drug misoprostol that, when inserted in the vagina, can cause contractions and bleeding that will look like a miscarriage to hospital personnel.

Hospital staff is obliged to report suspicious cases to the authorities. Investigators will then come in and start gathering evidence for an abortion, including interviews with family and friends, the woman's medical records, and forensic exams of her vagina and uterus as a "search of the crime scene."

The flipside, says Hitt, are the truly life-threatening complications that can arise, for example in the case of an ectopic pregnancy. In an ectopic pregnancy, the fertilized egg fails to move into the uterus and instead gets stuck in the fallopian tube--a condition that, as the fetus grows, inevitably leads to the rupture of the fallopian tube, killing the fetus and often the mother as well.

But under El Salvador law, physicians are not allowed to terminate a woman's pregnancy until it is certain that the fetus is dead, no matter what the risks for the mother--which has proven to be a precarious tightrope walk for hospital emergency staff.

However oppressive the Salvadoran abortion laws, some U.S. pundits seem to find them appealing. Rev. Thomas J. Euteneuer, head of Virginia-based Human Life International, says "El Salvador is an inspiration," calling it an important victory in the "counterrevolution of conscience." And Rep. Jim DeMint (SC-R), when asked in a 2004 interview with Tim Russert whether he would prosecute the woman in cases of abortion, danced around the issue by suggesting that "Congress should outlaw all abortions first and worry about the fallout later."

Act first, think later: A virtual guarantee for trouble ahead.

[We'd like to hear our readers' opinion on this no doubt emotion-laden matter. Send us your thoughts at [email protected].]

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Posted 07-25-2006 8:35 PM by Doug Casey
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