Last month, Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín was released from a Salvadoran prison after serving 15 years for having a stillbirth. In El Salvador, where abortion is illegal in all circumstances, women who have abortions, miscarriages or stillbirths can be charged with aggravated homicide without any direct proof. Such was the case for Maira, who was 19 when she became pregnant after a sexual assault. While being treated for severe bleeding following a stillbirth, she was accused of having an abortion and handcuffed to her hospital bed. Authorities detained her the same day and a judge swiftly sentenced her to 30 years in prison for “aggravated homicide.”
Today, Maira is home, safe with her family. But more than 20 Salvadoran women remain in prison, their lives casualties of the country’s criminalization of abortion. While the harsh criminal penalty Maira experienced is specific to El Salvador, the country’s abortion ban is not. Altogether, six countries — including the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname — ban abortion in all circumstances, including when a woman’s life is at risk or in cases of rape of a minor.
This spring, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic are on the precipice of progress. Both countries’ legislatures will consider proposals to end their extreme policies and decriminalize abortion. These countries must end this outright ban so that women whose lives are at risk and girls who have become pregnant by rape can make their own hard decisions about their futures.
Total abortion bans not only affect how women live; they affect how women die. The Dominican Republic, where 30 percent of the population lives in poverty, has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in Latin America. For every woman who dies during pregnancy or childbirth in the United States, at least three women will die in the Dominican Republic. And, out of all pregnancy-related deaths, one in three women die because of a terminal disease that went untreated because of the pregnancy.
While it’s impossible to know the exact number of needless deaths caused by total abortion bans, the women who lose their lives to their pregnancies are not the only victims; their spouses, their children and their communities suffer collateral damage.
Throughout the Obama administration, the United States prioritized the inclusion of women, including investing in reproductive and maternal health and ending sexual violence, in our foreign policy priorities. But today, 15 months after President Trump reinstated and expanded the Global Gag Rule, the United States has shamefully cut funding to organizations that deliver basic preventive healthcare services, such as birth control and HIV prevention, because they provide counsel about abortion in countries where it is legal.
Trump’s broad directive hinders the substantial good of U.S. humanitarian efforts. Moreover, the Global Gag Rule takes aim at the same programs that could reduce unplanned pregnancies and pregnancy-related deaths in Latin America. As a co-sponsor of the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights Act (Global HER), I am working to reverse this counter-intuitive policy that harms the well-being of women and children. El Salvador and the Dominican Republic are on the verge of achieving progress; the United States must continue to stand alongside nations to improve the lives of women globally.
Now is the time for elected officials in Santo Domingo and San Salvador to take action so that women like Maira don’t end up in prison for having a stillbirth and so that girls won’t die during pregnancy because they were refused life-saving treatment. As elected officials, we have a duty to make hard decisions that progress lifesaving policies and protect the lives of women and girls. The moment is long overdue for El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and nations around the world to end their total abortion bans.
U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat represents New York’s 13th congressional district.