Resisting the Overturn of Roe: What U.S. Feminists Can Learn From El Salvador

In a grim moment nationally, let us look to Latin America for the sustained will to resist and overturn abortion bans.

Women march to the Legislative Assembly during a demonstration to demand legal abortion on September 28, 2021 in San Salvador, El Salvador. With the threat of an all-out ban on abortion, it is time for U.S. reproductive rights organizers to think transnationally and look to how Latin American feminists, specifically in El Salvador, have successfully resisted the criminalizing, all-out ban on abortion in effect since 1998. (Roque Alvarenga / APHOTOGRAFIA / Getty Images)

U.S. reproductive rights organizers, lawyers and health practitioners are coming face to face with the reality that abortion could be completely banned in the U.S. Already, the practice is banned after six weeks in more than five states.

The overturn of Roe v. Wade includes addendums that also criminalize abortion. Oklahoma passed a near total ban on abortion in April, criminalizing clinicians who provide abortions as felons. This ban includes fines upwards of $100,000 or 10 years maximum in state prison. Doctors, nurses and family members considered “aiding and abetting” could be surveilled and criminalized for assisting in abortion.

Unfortunately, this reality has existed in El Salvador since 1998 when the right-wing ARENA party banned abortion in all instances, then changed the Constitution just one year later in 1999 declaring life begins at conception. In the coming years, it is wise for U.S. feminists to think and organize transnationally—how can we learn from and draw political connections with Salvadoran feminists that have successfully freed women from prison who are charged with the “crime” of abortion? We must prepare our response and support of all people who will be criminalized for abortion in existing states where bans exist. Most importantly, we can learn from existing cultural and legal tactics to overcome the battle ahead.

Abortion in El Salvador has been illegal under all circumstances since 1998, even in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity or miscarriage. El Salvador is among four countries in Latin America that ban abortion all-out, including Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. In El Salvador, more than 200 women were serving abortion-related charges in 2015, according to The Coalition to Decriminalize Abortion, and many were arrested while still under anesthesia in the hospital.

The Coalition to Decriminalize Abortion in El Salvador (Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto) was formed in 2009.  In 2014, U.S. news outlets began covering “Las 17,” a campaign created by the coalition. Translating to “The 17,” the campaign refers to 17 women serving upwards of 30 to 40 years in prison for the crime of abortion.

Maria Teresa Rivera was one of 17 women who gained international attention in 2014 because she was not only incarcerated after miscarrying—but was also unaware she was pregnant.

After 15 days San Bartolo National Hospital, Rivera woke up handcuffed to the hospital bed. Her arrest was filed by the public hospital social worker. The Oklahoma ban that explicitly criminalizes practitioners promotes an environment of surveillance and discrimination, just as the 1998 abortion ban and penal code also required public hospital staff to report women seeking abortions to the police. As a result of this new provision, many practitioners fear losing their license and quickly turn over abortion-seeking women to the police. The $100,000 fine in Oklahoma is precisely placed to deter clinicians from offering abortions.

Exonerated in 2016 and now an ardent speaker for Agrupación, Rivera established legal precedent because her case was the first wrongful conviction. El Salvador was required to compensate her for psychological damages. Recently in December of 2021, three additional women were released from prison serving obstetric-related “crimes,” due in large to the tireless efforts of the Citizen’s Group.

Many practitioners fear losing their license and quickly turn over abortion-seeking women to the police.

With the threat of an all-out ban on abortion in the United States because of a 6-3 conservative majority in the Supreme Court, it is time for U.S. reproductive rights organizers and legal experts to think transnationally and look to how Latin American feminists, specifically in El Salvador, have successfully resisted the criminalizing, all-out ban on abortion that has been in effect since 1998. This is paramount as U.S. state bans on abortion are already proposing legislation to criminalize not only women who have abortions, but also any practitioners who might assist in an abortion procedure.

Legal Similarities in the U.S. Wave of “Heartbeat Bills” and El Salvador Conferring Personhood to the Fetus

Though the U.S. has not yet criminalized abortion nationally, there is legal precedent to do so. Some states have criminalized family members, doctors, nurses and friends who aid in a person receiving an abortion. A wave of bills banning abortion between six to 15 weeks in 13 states is a strategic move to make abortion illegal in all instances on a national scale.

Feminists in the U.S. can learn political strategies from Salvadoran feminist organizations like The Citizen’s Coalition for the Decriminalization of Abortion, as they successfully applied both cultural and political pressure through international solidarity campaigns; sustained protests outside the Ministry of Health and the infamous Ilopango women’s prison; and legal action.

Cultural Resistance: The Green Wave

Wearing a green bandana has become an international symbol of abortion rights in Latin America as people organize to decriminalize and legalize abortion from Mexico City, Argentina and El Salvador. After 30 years of struggle, Argentina in a landmark decision legalized abortion in 2020. This type of culture jamming or using visual culture to make a political statement and material aesthetic, creates a sense of solidarity that U.S. states can learn from to make a unified movement across state borders.

Additionally, The Citizen’s Group and other feminist organizations in El Salvador creatively leverage performance when protesting outside of places like the Ilopango women’s prison in El Salvador. In staging protests outside of the prison where women are incarcerated or the health ministry, they organically locate sites of power while reclaiming their embodiment in public space. Salvadoran feminists also discuss the importance of shifting cultural conversations about abortion, particularly in a Catholic nation like El Salvador.

On one instance, Salvadoran women protested in front of Ilopango prison, painting their faces with black and white to resemble mimes. The result or impact of the protest can be interpreted a myriad of ways, which is the very point: It stirs public discussion about our bodies, how we use them and the choices that we must make about them. In my opinion, this protest of mimes suggests a shared sense of anonymity – you cannot make out the identity of one person from the other entirely. Through anonymity, or donning a similar aesthetic, it creates the visual of unity across varying bodies. We can learn from performance and activism to inspire daily conversations within U.S. culture about reproductive rights.

Legal Action

Feminist organizations like The Citizen’s Group have successfully connected to national feminist organizations like Colectiva Feminista in El Salvador, while also internationally connecting with other Latin American feminist organizations battling abortion bans. On a national level, Salvadoran lawyers like Dennis Muñoz have been important figures in either reducing women’s sentencing periods or exonerating them all together. Muñoz has described his call to represent Agrupación in 2008 when he “stumbled across the file of an 18-year-old woman named Cristina Quintanilla” who was also handcuffed to a hospital bed for the purported crime of abortion.

Alongside national legal efforts, international campaigns have been important sources of political visibility. Both Amnesty International and the Center for Reproductive Rights have produced quantitative research on the social impacts of abortion bans including increased maternal death, suicide and the proliferation of back-alley abortion methods.

In a grim moment nationally, let us look to Latin America for the sustained will to resist and overturn abortion bans. Most notably, U.S. reproductive rights organizers should think of legal and cultural campaigns that can move across states. Though combatting abortion bans in the U.S. will be difficult because states exert their own jurisdiction over abortion laws, we can create a national movement and anticipate the challenges ahead through learning from Latin American feminists, especially the resilient people of El Salvador.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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Mellissa Linton (she/her) is an assistant professor in women and gender studies at Arizona State University and is the faculty coordinator for the LGBT undergraduate studies certificate at ASU. She is an emergent author on reproductive justice in the United States and El Salvador, speaking to her goal to foster transnational solidarity within the Central American diaspora. Linton received her Ph.D. in ethnic studies at UC San Diego, and bachelor's in literature and American studies at the University of Southern California.