A 22 June 2023 photo of Salvadoran activist Morena Herrera during a conference on abortion rights in Panama City, Panama. EFE/Bienvenido Velasco

Central America: Home to the world’s strictest abortion laws

By Ana de Leon

A pregnant woman walks on 27 July 2023 on a downtown street in Panama City, Panama. EFE/Bienvenido Velasco

Panama City, Jul 28 (EFE).- The world’s strictest abortion laws are found in the countries of Central America, where women can face long prison sentences if convicted of deliberately ending their pregnancies.

A pregnant woman walks on 27 July 2023 on a downtown street in Panama City, Panama. EFE/Bienvenido Velasco

And even in cases of miscarriages or stillbirths, women can be accused of killing their babies and end up behind bars.

Four of the 10 countries worldwide with the most severe penalties for abortions are located in Central America and the Caribbean: El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, which completely ban that medical procedure.

And women’s rights to have an abortion under certain circumstances in Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama – for example if the mother’s life is in danger or she was raped – are often not protected.


El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic do not allow abortion under any circumstance. And in El Salvador, that crime is punishable by up to 12 years in prison.

Salvadoran human rights activist Morena Herrera says the most aggressive efforts to criminalize abortion are seen in her homeland.

Even women who had no intention of ending their pregnancies can be suspected of having had an abortion and charged with aggravated homicide.

Some of these cases have made international news after women sought justice before the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

El Salvador’s total abortion ban was challenged earlier this year by a woman, Beatriz, who had been prevented from having an abortion even though her life was in danger and the fetus had anencephaly, a condition in which major portions of the brain, skull and scalp are absent.

Babies with this birth defect are unable to survive outside the womb.

Another case involved a poor, illiterate Salvadoran woman named Manuela who had suffered an obstetric emergency in 2008 and was accused of killing her fetus and sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide.

The IACHR ruled that El Salvador was responsible for the death of Manuela, who died behind bars after not receiving adequate cancer treatment in prison.

It also ordered the Central American country to reform its strict reproductive health policies.

And in Honduras, Herrera said an indigenous woman was sentenced to 22 years in prison even though an autopsy was not performed on the fetus to determine the cause of death.


In Panama, the law permits women to have an abortion in the case of rape or risk to the health of the mother and the fetus.

But like in other countries of the region, such as Costa Rica and Guatemala, women’s limited rights to that procedure are not upheld in practice.

In one case, an eight-year-old indigenous rape victim in Panama was forced to deliver her baby because 23 weeks had gone by when doctors realized she was pregnant and abortion is only allowed in these cases during the first two months of pregnancy.

Despite the age of the minor, the physicians determined that she was able to deliver the child and she gave birth via cesarean section in March 2022.


“(In Central America) we have in practice a political system and a legal system that denies women the autonomy to decide on their reproductive capacity,” Herrera said.

So there’s a punitive system that turns women’s health events into crimes, and this has very serious consequences.”

The Salvadoran activist said one outcome of draconian laws on abortion are suicides by pregnant teenagers.

“They don’t see any alternatives, they don’t know about support networks (and) opt for suicide,” she said.

“These countries also have an authoritarian model … that denies the right to comprehensive sexual education (because of ) pressure from groups that deny women’s rights,” the activist added. EFE