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The Criminalization of Abortion in Central America: A Systemic Form of Violence Against Women

Illustration depicting the folklore of El Salvador, crone with moon. from: PWCD - reproductive rights in central america.


Written by: Natty Klimo

There are numerous theological, moral, social, legal perspectives and insights pervading the topic of abortion. These various opinions often produce debates regarding the legality of terminating a pregnancy on any grounds. Historically, abortion has been considered morally and legally wrong. However, this attitude has shifted over time due to a growing awareness that access to safe abortions is imperative to safeguarding women’s reproductive, psychological, and socioeconomic well-being. This awareness has stimulated global abortion law reforms in various countries. Nevertheless, a small number of Latin American countries still prohibit and criminalize abortion under any circumstances.

Women living in countries that enforce a total ban on abortion, such as El Salvador and Nicaragua, are at a high risk of imprisonment if they are accused and convicted of committing abortion, even if the pregnancy terminates due to miscarriage. Women who miscarry, or become aware of their pregnancies after experiencing obstetric complications, are often convicted of homicide or aggravated homicide. Not allowing a woman to access safe abortion services to save her life, preserve her health, or for socioeconomic reasons is problematic, while the incarceration of women who suffer miscarriages constitutes a systemic form of violence against women.


The sentencing for women suspected of abortion in El Salvador can be a prison term ranging between two and eight years, and in Nicaragua, between one to two years. However, in some cases, sentences are especially excessive and disproportionate. For example, a woman could be charged with aggravated homicide and sentenced to 30 years behind bars. It seems apparent that the poverty, patriarchal attitudes, religious beliefs, unequal distribution of wealth, and civil unrest that have historically plagued El Salvador and Nicaragua have had unfavorable effects on women’s social status and reproductive rights.

Compounding the issue is the persistent gender discrimination that negatively impacts women’s ability to exercise and advocate for their reproductive rights. Gender discrimination is exhibited in societal beliefs regarding what is considered appropriate behavior for women and girls. So deeply entrenched are the conservative, patriarchal, and religious beliefs relegating women to the social reproduction sphere. These stereotypes influence attitudes toward women within the health and legal systems, adversely affecting the manner in which associated institutions address women’s concerns – and in this case, the development and implementation of laws and practices relating to the total ban on abortion.


However, a shift in attitudes has been observed due to the declining influence of the Catholic Church. Human rights activists are now advocating for access to contraceptives and abortion services, amidst an increase of neoliberalism in Latin America. This breadth has provided Latin American countries the opportunity to set in motion social movements advocating for access to safe abortion without penalty, transferring the attention away from reproductive policies and moral regimens to human rights concerns.

Liberalizing abortion laws in Latin American countries that  currently have total bans on abortion can be achieved through legal reform, coalitions, public  education and awareness, and by framing the issue of abortion within the appropriate context. Activists in various Latin American countries are using educational campaigns and the media to  educate leaders, youth, and the public about health and reproductive rights in relation to abortion. Many advocates have also framed the advantages and disadvantages of abortion within the context of  international law, rather than focusing on religious and medical perspectives. Continue… 

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