A Protestant megachurch in El Salvador, 2018 | Flickr/BBC World Service. CC-BY-2.0. Some rights reserved
In El Salvador, just being suspected of having had an abortion can put a woman behind bars. In February 2008, Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide after she had a stillbirth.
“It was the worst thing that I could have experienced,” Vásquez, 34, told 50.50 over the phone from her house, about 30 minutes outside San Salvador. “For me, those were difficult moments, more than anything because they separated me from my son and from the people who love me – my parents and siblings.”
Vásquez was released from prison in February 2018, after a decade behind bars, when her sentence was commuted by the supreme court.
She has not been absolved of the crime, however, and the government has not apologised for her long detention. Nor can she get back the time she lost with her son, now aged 14.
More than 100 women have been convicted of abortion-related crimes in El Salvador since abortion was made illegal under all circumstances, in 1997.
Religious groups lobbied for the ban more than 20 years ago. They continue to protest any loosening of the restrictions that have been proposed in the country’s legislative assembly, the latest of which failed to pass in April 2018.
El Salvador is historically a Catholic country, but in the past few decades, Protestant Christian communities, including pentecostal and evangelical ones, have grown here as well as in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Some 36-41% of the population in these countries now identifies as Protestant, according to the Pew Research Center.
This changing religious landscape has not been good news for women such as Vásquez. Evangelical and pentecostal Christians in El Salvador often support right-wing policies and promote conservative ideas about sexuality, LGBT rights and reproductive health.
This changing religious landscape has not been good news for women like Vásquez
As NGOs fighting for reproductive rights have tried to change the abortion ban over the past 20 years, evangelicals have been among their staunchest opponents. Throughout Latin America, Protestants are even more rigid in their opposition to abortion than Catholics, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
“You’re talking about a very conservative group of people, so abortion is wrong 90+% of the time and homosexuality is always wrong. It’s very conservative in regards to reproductive and social values like those,” said Timothy Wadkins, professor of religious studies and theology at Canisius University in the US.
Solidarity protest for Beatriz, Mexico City, 2013 | Flickr/Amnistía México. CC-BY-2.0. Some rights reserved
Evangelical churches have had a presence in El Salvador since at least the 19th century, according to Wadkins, but they didn’t significantly expand until the late 1970s.
At that time, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua were all facing intense internal strife with Leftist guerrilla insurgencies rising up against conservative, land-owning elites. El Salvador was the last of the three to enter into a full-blown civil war, in 1980.
The 12-year conflict fractured the historic control over land and resources by a small group of elites, many of whom were allies of the Catholic church. Amid this change, the teachings of evangelical Christians, which focus on the individual, and were not associated with the traditional social order, became more appealing to some citizens.
“Most of them just started to think of the Catholic church as irrelevant because it represented something old and antiquated and these are new […] ‘masterless individuals’ who think for themselves and make choices for themselves,” said Wadkins.
During this period, he continued, “what you have is a massive decline in Catholic allegiance and that is where the evangelicals came in and did a masterful job of working with these unchurched Catholics.”
At the time, a small part of the Catholic church was moving towards liberation theology, a movement that emphasised the church's responsibility to fight for social justice. But US politicians favoured evangelical Christianity in the context of the cold war.
Michael Cangemi, professor at Binghamton University, New York, says that evangelism was “appealing in a political sense to both political dictators in Central America, but also to policymakers in the US” as it was the politically conservative “antithesis” of liberation theology” and “ardently anti-communist”.
Today, evangelicals in El Salvador continue to protest any changes to the country’s abortion ban
The US had their hands deep in Central America in the 1980s, but Wadkins says that evangelical ‘conversion campaigns’ were led mainly by churches already in the country, rather than foreign missionaries.
Today, El Salvador’s evangelicals continue to protest any changes to the country’s extreme anti-abortion laws.
The right-wing ARENA party won the most seats in March 2018 parliamentary elections. Shortly after, pro-choice activists began to push to legalise abortion in certain cases, aiming to achieve this before the newly elected officials took office.
But the backlash was fierce. In April, a consortium of religious organisations, both Catholic and evangelical, organised a March for Life through the capital, San Salvador, to protest against the proposed loosening of the country’s abortion laws.
The official organiser of the march was the Movimiento de Transformación Nacional, a religious coalition led by evangelical pastor Numa Rodezno. “What they are thinking of doing is a crime. It’s something murderous,” said Rodezno of the proposed legal change, according to Salvadoran media outlet La Prensa Gráfica.
On 26 April, El Salvador’s congress closed for the 2015–18 period without approving proposed legal amendments that would have relaxed the country’s ban on abortion in cases of rape, an unviable foetus or risks to the woman’s health or life.
“Some people are incredibly conservative and religious, and they don’t think about the kids that are growing up and the women who are in prison,” Vásquez told me. “[I hope that] they open their minds.”
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