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The Pro-Life Movement Foments “Moral Panic” in Latin America

Shortly after the passage of a total abortion ban in 1997, El Salvador became the first Latin American nation to routinely incarcerate poor women experiencing stillbirths and other obstetrical emergencies for the crime of “homicide.” Sociologist Jocelyn Viterna analyzes the political and cultural dynamics behind the pro-life movement’s success.

Quote by Jocelyn Viterna on when movements fail

By Michelle Nicholasen

The cases are harrowing, and they keep accumulating. El Salvadoran women and girls who give birth to stillborn babies are originally charged with abortion, and then ultimately sentenced to decades in prison for “aggravated homicide.” To date, Jocelyn Viterna, professor of sociology, has collected fifty-one such cases: most are destitute young women who live far from medical care—women who didn’t even know they were pregnant, many the victims of rape. Another twenty cases involve young women incarcerated and charged with “abortion.”

Viterna learned about the first cases in the mid-2000s when she was doing research for her book about female guerilla fighters, Women in War: The Micro-processes of Mobilization in El Salvador, and she couldn’t turn away. When she looked closely at the evidence presented in each case, it was clear that gender bias was rampant in the judicial process: women were accused of murder without any forensic evidence suggesting violence to the fetus; girls who didn’t even know they were pregnant were accused of attempted murder for accidentally birthing their babies in their home latrine. She wondered, why was there automatic presumption of guilt when there was no evidence of violence? 

Consulting with doctors, psychologists, pathologists, and forensic examiners, Viterna educated herself about the science of abortion, miscarriages, and stillbirths. She then started submitting briefs to the court—including statements from medical professionals—about what was known in the medical literature. Could a young woman, in fact, not know that she was pregnant? As it turns out, yes, a traumatized woman can suffer from dissociative disorder which can psychologically disconnect her from her body. Can a woman first learn of her pregnancy by giving birth in the latrine? Again, the medical literature supported this. Could an umbilical cord break on its own from a fetus’s fall into a latrine? Yes, according to medical experts. All of this she aggregated and reported in a series of “friend of the court” briefs.... Read more about The Pro-Life Movement Foments “Moral Panic” in Latin America

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Epicenter is an online publication that provides commentary and analysis on issues that transcend borders. Our team of writers and editors works with academic specialists to help bring clarity to complex global issues. The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs is committed to Harvard's tradition of fostering innovative, timely, policy-relevant scholarly activities that help us all make sense of the world.