Two months ago, Democratic state Rep. Cindy Polo of Miami Lakes visited a prison in El Salvador. Polo met an inmate named Berta Margarita Arana, a Salvadoran woman serving eight years for attempting an abortion.
After hours talking with Arana, Polo believes the woman did no such thing. She says Arana went into premature labor — as women in poor countries with poor prenatal care often do — and was then rushed to a hospital.
“And when that happens in El Salvador,” Polo says, “many of these women have been thrown in jail just on an accusation that they were attempting to terminate a pregnancy.”
Arana was accused by hospital staff. Human rights groups and the U.N. say that happens all too frequently in El Salvador — usually with little medical evidence. But it’s part of the reality in that Central American country: El Salvador bans all abortions under any circumstance — including in cases of rape and when a woman’s life is at risk. Even in Latin America, which has some of the world’s most severe abortion laws, El Salvador stands out for its criminal prosecutions — and, say critics, Orwellian persecution — of pregnant women.
“There were so many things that scared me in El Salvador,” Polo says, “but mostly this anti-woman witch hunt.”
Women there convicted of having an abortion can get as many as 30 years in prison. Those who’ve had miscarriages are often arbitrarily charged with inducing abortion. So are women like Arana — who did give birth, and whose baby now has to be raised by Arana’s mother because Arana is behind bars.
“She has never spent one night with her child,” Polo says.
Polo was part of a group of lawmakers visiting El Salvador. All were from states that have recently passed bills restricting abortion rights — including Alabama, which last year banned virtually all abortions. (A federal judge has temporarily blocked that law.) As a result, the legislators wanted to see El Salvador’s absolute abortion ban up close.
“I really wanted to learn what the consequences and unintended consequences can be,” Polo says.
Polo and the others in the U.S. delegation also wanted to use the El Salvador experience to more effectively confront what they see as a trend at home: states, including Florida, pushing abortion bans in the U.S.
Polo, who spoke to WLRN from her office in Tallahassee on Jan. 14 as the 2020 Florida legislative session got underway, pointed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ State of the State address that morning in which he emphasized:
“I also hope that the legislature will send me this session the parental consent bill.”
DeSantis was referring to new legislation that would strengthen Florida’s 2019 requirement to notify parents of minors seeking an abortion by also making parental consent mandatory.
The Republican sponsors — Rep. Erin Grall of Vero Beach and Sen. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland — insist their bills are about boosting parental rights, not eroding abortion rights. (They did not respond to WLRN’s request for interviews.)
But abortion rights advocates say parental consent requirements — even if they make exceptions for medical emergencies or pregnancies resulting from incest — represent the sort of “incremental” abortion limits that led to El Salvador’s blanket ban in the 1990s.
“Just having the legal right on paper to an abortion says nothing about a person’s actual ability to get that abortion if she needs it,” says Kelly Baden, vice president for reproductive rights at State Innovation Exchange, or SiX, a liberal nonprofit based in Wisconsin. SiX and the nonprofit Women’s Equality Center in New York arranged the legislators’ El Salvador visit.
U.S. anti-abortion rights advocates say that comparing their campaign to El Salvador’s situation is an unfair exaggeration. They insist the U.S. pro-life lobby isn’t aiming for the police state, “Handmaid’s Tale” dystopia much of Latin America has become — and they say U.S. state bans would imprison only abortion providers for murder, not women.
But Baden says even that argument is now crumbling.
“A bill introduced in Texas last year had criminal penalties for women who received abortion care,” she points out, referring to a bill that eventually did not pass. “And then while we were in El Salvador, a bill in Ohio [HB 413] was announced to ban abortion and has criminal penalties for women.”
In El Salvador, Mariana Moisa, spokeswoman for the Citizen Group for Decriminalizing Abortion, a nonprofit that hosted the U.S. lawmakers, said she hopes her country's example will give Americans pause.
"They should be reminded," she told WLRN from San Salvador, "that absolute abortion bans most cruelly affect poor women and victims of sexual violence. Like teenaged girls forced to give birth even after being raped.”
That’s a large part of what now motivates Polo, who says her low-income constituents are among the women most apt to be impacted by tighter abortion limits. She believes abortion rights advocates, especially legislators like herself, need to highlight their plight more prominently.
“One of the responsibilities I take to heart as a first-generation American-born Latina in office,” says Polo, who is Colombian American, “is to not let these scare tactics hijack women’s reproductive freedom.”
If more legislators take Polo’s cue, the reality in El Salvador could now become part of the debate in Tallahassee.