Beatriz Garcia, whose fight against El Salvador’s draconian prohibitions on abortion moved the country—and the world—in 2013, died October 8 from complications after a motorcycle accident a few days prior.
Garcia, who chose to be known only as “Beatriz” during her struggle to interrupt her life-threatening pregnancy in 2013, suffered from the autoimmune disease discoid systemic lupus erythematosus, which was aggravated by lupus nephritis, an incurable disease that affects multiple organs. According to the Salvadoran Institute of Forensic Medicine, the lupus, combined with a case of hospital-acquired pneumonia, ultimately led to her death.
“Beatriz was our friend, a warrior, who never stopped fighting for her life,” said the local feminist group Agrupacion Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, in a statement.
In 2013, Beatriz, a then-22-year-old rural woman living in poverty, became pregnant for the second time. She had a 1-and-a-half year-old son. Her physicians at the public hospital in San Salvador advised her that, due to the lupus, the pregnancy was a potentially fatal threat to her life. In addition, they determined that the fetus was anencephalic, or lacking a brain. At most, they said, it would survive only a few hours outside her uterus. Their medical recommendation was to interrupt the pregnancy.
Although all concerned were well aware that abortion was illegal under all circumstances in El Salvador, Beatriz requested an abortion from the government. The Agrupacion, along with other feminist and human rights groups, mounted a campaign for Beatriz’s right to terminate her pregnancy based on the risks to her life and the fact that the fetus was not viable.
Within the past few days Amnesty International has initiated a petition asking for life-saving medical care, including an abortion; the United Nations has spoken; and the Salvadoran Minister of Health, Dr. Maria Isabel Rodriguez, has requested that the Supreme Court approve the request. Dr. Rodriguez emphasized that Beatriz’s kidney function continues to deteriorate as the pregnancy advances, and that the public health system is ready to perform an abortion. The Salvadoran Attorney General for Human Rights also supports the request.
Beatriz’s story wove together the threads of multiple inequity that affected—and still affect—the lives of Salvadoran women:
Beatriz’s life is threatened by her health conditions and a high-risk pregnancy. However, the deeper threats come from an intractable and misogynistic political and religious system which criminalizes women for being young, poor, rural women. Right now the eyes and voices of the world constitute Beatriz’s hope for life. She wants to live.
Her struggle forever changed the consciousness of the movement and the country. Activists such as Mariana Moisa from the Agrupacion talk about Beatriz’s story as the “parting of the waters.”
“There will always be ‘before Beatriz and after Beatriz,'” Moisa told Rewire in an unpublished 2016 interview.
Salvadoran families who had never discussed the topic of abortion watched news stories about a young woman with whom they could identify. There had never been anyone who went public asking for an abortion before Beatriz. The subject was so taboo that the word was rarely used out loud, even by feminists. Because of the social and religious taboos and the illegality, it just wasn’t discussed. Although procedures continue to be clandestine, Beatriz helped shift the image of an abortion patient to that of a young mother with a serious medical condition who wanted to live and raise her child.
As reported for Rewire in 2013:
The Salvadoran feminist organization Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto … petitioned the Salvadoran Supreme Court on April 15 to intervene and to direct medical personnel to provide without fear of criminal prosecution the procedures Beatriz needs to save her life. Under current law, both Beatriz and any medical personnel involved in an abortion would face criminal charges and prison time. The court responded with a temporary directive that medical personnel provide the care necessary to guarantee her life and health while they make a decision regarding the petition for an abortion. Medical personnel were also directed to present to the court within five days a report on the condition of the mother and the fetus to inform their deliberations.
At a May 2013 event, feminists confronted then-President Mauricio Funes with a banner asking, “Mauricio Funes, if Beatriz were your daughter, would you let her die?” He was forced to respond publicly for the first time, saying, “Beatriz has the right to make decisions about her life.”
As the October 9 statement from the Agrupacion explained, the Salvadoran Supreme Court did not provide an adequate response to Beatriz’s situation. “Her case went to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and Court, which issued measures under which a cesarean section was performed in the 26th week of pregnancy,” on June 3, 2013. Her baby lived about five hours, as was expected.
As the statement noted, following a motorcycle accident on October 4, Beatriz was taken to National Hospital of Jiquilisco for “mild cranial brain trauma.” She was then transferred to the Usulután National Hospital, after the Jiquilisco Hospital was flooded with rains from tropical storm Nate. Two days after the accident, and after her discharge from the hospital, she began to have respiratory difficulties: a combination of her lupus and the pneumonia she had contracted while in the hospital.
She died in San Miguel early Sunday.
According to the Agrupacion, Beatriz’s death was at least in part a result of the health system ineffectively treating her lupus. Since 2013, the group says it has been trying to access more comprehensive health care for her. Though the details of her death are still unclear, the group’s statement said, “For the second time, the State failed Beatriz. The public health system did not guarantee quality care, nor understand her condition, similar to what happened in 2013 when physicians in the public network did not interrupt her pregnancy for fear of being criminally punished under the laws which prohibited all abortions and criminalized both the woman and physicians.”
As the Agrupacion statement noted, in November 2013, Beatriz sued the Salvadoran state for “not allowing her to undergo a therapeutic abortion and for all the violations she and her family suffered during the 81 days the process lasted when she requested to have her pregnancy terminated.”
“The petition, filed before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeks to prevent other Salvadoran women from repeating the same torture that Beatriz lived,” the statement continued.
That case is ongoing.
And the same law that prevented Beatriz from obtaining an abortion in a timely manner is still on the books, despite years of intense activism seeking legislative change.
“Hasta siempre, Beatriz, until always, Beatriz,” the group’s statement concluded. “We will continue to transform our pain, anger, and indignation into struggle until there is justice for all the Beatrizes in El Salvador.”