Heavily Edited Attack Videos Jeopardizing Fight for Women’s Rights Abroad

In El Salvador, where abortion is illegal even in cases of rape, incest, and maternal danger, on-the-ground feminist organizations have been targeted by mainstream news media outlets publishing articles based on the Center for Medical Progress’ deceptive undercover videos.

In El Salvador, where abortion is illegal even in cases of rape, incest, and maternal danger, on-the-ground feminist organizations have been targeted by mainstream news media outlets publishing articles based on the Center for Medical Progress’ deceptive undercover videos. Shutterstock

See more of our coverage on the effects of the misleading Center for Medical Progress videos here.

The effects of conservative efforts to spread falsehoods about Planned Parenthood are not just limited to the United States. In El Salvador, where abortion is illegal even in cases of rape, incest, and maternal danger, on-the-ground feminist organizations have been targeted by mainstream news media outlets publishing articles based on the Center for Medical Progress’ deceptive, heavily edited undercover videos. These are, in turn, increasing the fear and resistance around the push for safe and legal abortion in the country.

In its August 16 Sunday edition, La Prensa Gráfica (LPG), a conservative major mainstream daily newspaper, published an article headlined in Spanish, Money from NGO linked to organ trafficking is used in pro-abortion campaign.”

The piece, written by frequent LPG contributor Byron Sosa, relied on patently false information. In addition to regarding as factual CMP’s allegations that Planned Parenthood “sells baby parts,” Sosa wrongly tied the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), whose affiliates are featured in the undercover videos, to groups in El Salvador—namely, the Agruapación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion) and a sister organization, the Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local (Feminist Collective for Local Development).

The Agrupación in particular has attracted attention in the last few years for defending the right of a woman named “Beatriz” to interrupt a pregnancy that put her health and life at risk. The organization also works to free Las 17, a group of women unjustly imprisoned with aggravated homicide convictions when they suffered miscarriages or obstetrical complications that led to the deaths of their fetuses. The Colectiva Feminista, which works closely with the Agrupación and shares office space with them, is a national feminist organization that works with several local groups in the country around issues of local development, violence, human rights, the environment, and more. Many of the volunteers who work with the Agrupación are also part of the Colectiva.

In his piece, Sosa quoted Sara Larín, president of the Movimiento VIDA SV, an anti-choice group. Noting that the Agrupación receives funds from the Safe Abortion Action Fund (SAAF), Larin claimed this money comes from PPFA, itself, she says, an organization that profits off the “sale” of fetal tissue. She said the Agrupación is working to “promote the practice of abortion in El Salvador,” and that this work is of a “criminal nature.” Though Larín was referring to the Agrupación’s efforts to modify the total ban on abortion, she also used the false claims around PPFA to bolster her argument.  

To date, investigations in the United States have failed to find any evidence of Planned Parenthood breaking the law with its fetal tissue donation program. In addition, the Salvadoran groups in question do not receive any funding from PPFA. Rather, the SAAF money they receive is linked to the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), an international organization that works with non-governmental organizations around the world. 

The conflation of PPFA and IPPF was a frequent theme throughout Sosa’s article; he also named PPFA officials who appeared in the videos as working for IPPF.

Sosa cited ACI Prensa, a conservative Catholic information agency in Lima, Peru, as saying that the videos allegedly proved Planned Parenthood sold, as Sosa put it, “the organs of aborted babies.” That agency also failed to distinguish between the IPPF and the PPFA.

The reporter also claimed that he attempted to contact the Agrupación, but did not receive a response. Agrupación representatives told Rewire that neither group was contacted.

Nowhere in the piece did Sosa mention the fact that experts say the videos were edited or that there has been no evidence of PPFA breaking the law.

The LPG article, however, was just the most recent in a series of media accusations inspired by the CMP videos. A July 27 ACI Prensa article quoted Larín as claiming that “the abortion lobby in El Salvador is being financed by [Planned Parenthood’s] sale of the organs of aborted babies.” She also criticized the Salvadoran government for having granted the Agrupación nonprofit status in 2014, implying that the Agrupación was sharing in the profits of those alleged sales.

The ACI Prensa followed up on August 5 with an article “revealing” the existence of a letter of support for Planned Parenthood in the wake of the CMP videos, a letter that was indeed signed by dozens of groups that defend reproductive rights in Latin America, including the Agrupación and the Colectiva Feminista. The article, a clear effort to drum up backlash against the groups, also claimed to link many of these organizations to “Planned Parenthood” funding, although distinctions were not made among IPPF, PFFA, and “Planned Parenthood.”

On August 15, in another right-wing Salvadoran mainstream daily paper, El Diario de Hoy, an anti-choice columnist published accusations linking the Agrupación with Planned Parenthood, again not noting whether she meant PPFA or IPPF. The writer, who has a history of defamatory columns, called the Agrupación “abortionists”—a potentially criminal accusation in a country where the procedure is illegal—and called their work “sinister.” She included the initials of Agrupación leader Morena Herrera, potentially to accuse Herrera without putting herself at risk by naming Herrera outright.

The Agrupación and the Colectiva Feminista refute all these claims. In a document they issued as part of a call for solidarity after the LPG piece, they explained:

The Agrupación and the Colectiva Feminista oppose the attacks on PPFA because they place at risk the rights and the health services that the organization offers, especially to women in the poorest sectors in the U.S., including our immigrant population.

The two Salvadoran groups do have a grant which runs from 2014 to 2017 from SAAF, which is linked to IPPF … The goals of that grant do indeed include efforts to discuss publicly the consequences of the absolute ban on abortion and to explore the possibilities for legislative change.  

The document also pointed out that the LPG had not mentioned the fact that “multiple journalistic investigations … reveal the lack of credibility and the intense manipulation used by the CMP campaign.”

Overall, they concluded, “the reporting from this news media has not contributed to providing balanced and credible information to the Salvadoran society, but rather a sensationalist treatment that generates uncertainty and anxiety.”

Under Salvadoran law, the groups have the right to demand space in the LPG to write a response letter. The “right to response” demand from the Agrupación and the Colectiva Feminista, which was provided to Rewire, stated that the daily published “untrue news against our organizations,” that the news outlet demonstrated “little professionalism,” and that it acted with “pernicious intentions that harm our institutional and personal safety.”

The document continued, “Your statements are defamatory and intend to slow our work as human rights defenders, putting at risk the personal security of our members.”

The Agrupación and the Colectiva Feminista have requested space for an article of the same dimensions and location (in a Sunday edition) as the original article in order to respond to the false accusations made. They have also made clear that they invoked the “right to response” not only for the immediate situation, but for a possible future legal action against the newspaper.

The request for a right to response was delivered to the newspaper on August 21. Although by law, the LPG has three business days to respond, as of more than a month later, the Agrupación has not received a response, according to an email from Morena Herrera, Agrupación president, to Rewire. The Agrupación is now exploring other legal avenues.

Representatives from other human rights organizations feel that the resurgence of articles in outlets like these signal another push to limit reproductive rights for Salvadoran women.

After the LPG article was published, Axela Romero Cardenas, executive secretary of the Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Mujeres Defensoras de Derechos Humanos (Mesoamerican Initiative of the Women Human Rights Defenders), sent a statement to Michele Frost, the special rapporteur from the United Nations, notifying her of the situation. Cardenas characterized it as a “reactivation of a campaign of disparagement that fundamentalist religious groups are carrying out internationally against defenders and organizations that defend women’s sexual and reproductive rights in Latin America,” in particular, those who work to eradicate the consequences of the absolute criminalization of abortion in their respective countries.  

Romero also emphasized that these groups have had total freedom to spread their false statements without evidence. Thus far, she noted, the Salvadoran government has not stepped in to take “any type of provisional means to preserve the security, the safety and the work of the groups of defenders.”

She went on to detail how the fundamentalist campaign “has exposed private documents of the organizations, but above all has mentioned their names, inciting the exacerbation of violence against them when they refer to them as terrorists and abortionists.”  

These expressions polarize the public, she continued. She requested that the rapporteur be alert to any needs for urgent actions “to protect defenders at obvious risk of aggressions.”

Though the members of the Agrupación and the Colectiva have not reported any credible threats in response to this latest campaign, violent backlash against human rights defenders does happen in El Salvador. As Romero noted, this negative media environment could potentially heighten that environment of fear and oppression to a dangerous degree.

In one of numerous letters of solidarity received by the Agrupación, and provided to Rewire, another Salvadoran organization, Mujeres Transformando (Women Transforming), explained that the anti-choice campaign in El Salvador includes groups “with great economic power and with the capacity to generate public opinion by means of the conservative media and with the objective of criminalizing and delegitimizing the defense of sexual and reproductive rights … in this country that is so fundamentalist.”  

In the meantime, the Agrupación continues its campaign to defend the rights of women and to counter the power of mass media. In a radio interview on August 27 Alejandra Burgos, coordinator of the Network of Women Human Rights Defenders, part of the Colectiva Feminista, emphasized, “What we do is legal. This is a democratic country. We work to change a law we consider unjust.”  

She was joined by Katya Recinos, an attorney with the Agrupación’s legal team, who affirmed, “We have the right to talk about abortion, even though it has been a taboo topic. The right attempts to create an environment of misinformation and fear. We make a call to the public to seek out objective information. Don’t buy into the stigmatizing of human rights defenders.”