Abortion rights transcend borders: The case of Jane Doe

Oct 26, 2017 · 3 min read

By Daniel Alvarenga

Women in El Salvador protest the country’s total ban on abortion.

The Trump administration tried everything it could to stop a 17-year-old undocumented immigrant from getting an abortion while in detention. Identified as “Jane Doe” to protect her privacy, she’s been detained in a south Texas immigration facility since September after crossing the southern border.

This week, she won the legal battle to get an abortion while in detention, after being forced by law into religiously affiliated counseling and prevented by federal officials from leaving detainment to get the procedure. Timing was crucial, as Jane was almost 16 weeks pregnant at the time of the abortion — in a state that bans it after 20 weeks.

Her case captivated the nation, but it isn’t an isolated one. In fact, she symbolizes the struggles of many young migrant girls.

Due to anonymity, we don’t know what country she’s from, only that she’s Central American. But there’s a good chance she’s from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras — also known as the Central American Northern Triangle. Why? Because 85% of Central Americans in the U.S. are from these three countries, and their numbers are growing.

In 2014, an unprecedented number of unaccompanied children showed up at U.S. borders and made headlines in what became known as a Central American refugee crisis. It’s ongoing — just last year, nearly 47,000 unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle were intercepted at the U.S.–Mexico border. This is the migration wave that brought Jane Doe here.

Why do young girls flee Central America?

The Justice Department suggested Jane could solve this problem herself if she self-deported; the problem is that abortion is illegal in her country, though officials haven’t specified which country that is. Many women and girls in the Northern Triangle are forced to carry pregnancy to term, even in cases of sexual assault.

People from the Northern Triangle are often fleeing gang violence, and particularly for women and girls, this can mean sexual violence. Adolescent girls like Jane are often forced into sexual relationships with gang members, and resistance could mean death. In El Salvador, 66,000 girls left school in 2015 and 2016, likely to escape recruitment and rape from gang members.

Central America has among the highest rates of violence against women and girls in the world. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the region has one of the highest rates of femicide, the gender-motivated killing of women and girls. El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras rank 1st, 3rd and 7th, respectively.

Perils after leaving Central America

Once she was detained, a pregnancy test revealed Jane was nine weeks pregnant. She decided to seek an abortion. Depending on the length of her journey, the unwanted pregnancy could’ve been conceived in transit. According to a report from Fusion, 80% of Central American women and girls are sexually assaulted crossing Mexico en route to the U.S. And once migrants make it to the U.S., there’s still the possibility of sexual assault in immigration detention facilities.

After fleeing precarious conditions in Central America, and what was likely a dangerous journey through Mexico, she’s not out of the water yet. Jane is still a child refugee in custody under an administration rapidly working to erode the rights of immigrant women.

Jane left Central America, likely escaping a place with zero tolerance for reproductive rights despite the high risk of sexual violence. She came here hoping for a better life and still had to fight to make a choice about her body. It’s clear: The battle for reproductive rights has no borders.

The courts sided with this Jane Doe this time — thanks to established federal case law protecting the right to an abortion in the U.S. But what about other girls like her, who aren’t just seeking an abortion, but refuge?

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