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AP explores El Salvador’s strict abortion ban through the voices of women who lived it

Mariana López sits with her 7-year-old daughter at their home in Ahuachapan, El Salvador, May 19, 2022. López says she had an obstetric emergency in 2000, but was arrested on suspicion of inducing an abortion. She served 17 years in prison before being released when her 25-year sentence was commuted. El Salvador bans abortion under all circumstances; women who suffer miscarriages and stillbirths are sometimes accused of killing their babies and sentenced to years or even decades in prison. (AP Photo / Jessie Wardarski)

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As the U.S. Supreme Court considers overturning the constitutional right to abortion, New York-based reporter Luis Henao and video journalist Jessie Wardarski provided a compelling account of what can happen under a total abortion ban, through the testimonials of women who were raped or suffered miscarriages in El Salvador — where the law committed them to long prison terms.

The story took root in February, when Religion Team news director David Crary, liaising with AP Latin America and enterprise editors, proposed sending two of the team’s journalists to El Salvador to report on the harsh anti-abortion law in the predominantly Catholic country. The project took on new timeliness in early May, just two weeks before the trip, when a leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion indicated a majority of justices were prepared to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Henao and Wardarski started by interviewing experts and activists, and arranged to meet with seven women willing to share on camera their stories of being imprisoned under the law.

Once in El Salvador, the pair traveled to impoverished rural areas, meeting some of the women in their homes and documenting their harrowing stories, as well as their efforts to help end the abortion ban even as they reconnect with their families and rebuild their lives.

To the formerly imprisoned Salvadoran women, their plight should serve as a cautionary tale for Americans.

One woman said she’d been raped by her mother’s partner for years as a child; another spoke for the first time ever to journalists after recently being released from prison. Such encounters produced absorbing text, photos and video.

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AP global religion reporter Luis Andres Henao talks with a nun at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in San Salvador while reporting on El Salvador’s strict abortion law, May 17, 2022. – AP / Jessie Wardarski

The AP pair also sought to include another side of the contentious issue,and in that effort,persistence paid off. When the Catholic cardinal,Gregorio Rosas Chavez,declined an interview request,Henao and Wardarski learned that he celebrated a daily Mass and showed up at dawn. After they explained the importance of including the church in the story,Chavez granted them an on-camera interview.

Although the AP and some other media outlets have written previously about Salvadoran women convicted and imprisoned under the country’s rigid abortion law,little approaches the depth and intimacy of this all-formats package, including the on-camera interviews in the homes of women who previously spoke only at tightly controlled news conferences.

Contributing to the coverage were Marko Alvarez in Colombia,Paul Byrne in Paraguay and US-based Vanessa Alvarez,Maye-E Wong and Dario Lopez,all of whom helped shape the powerful visuals, and the Religion Team’s Holly Meyer and Peter Orsi who played key roles in editing the text pieces.

The resulting all-formats package, and a sidebar with vignettes of the seven women interviewed,were used by hundreds of newspapers and broadcasters,including the Washington Post,Seattle Times,San Francisco Chronicle,NBC News and ABC News. The work was the topic of impassioned commentary and exchanges on social media over the weekend, and was widely praised by experts on the issue.

AP and others have previously written about about the prosecution of Salvadoran women under the country’s abortion ban, but not with the depth and intimacy of this package.

AP Executive Editor Julie Pace wrote: “This is obviously a difficult and nuanced issue to report on and you pulled it off exceptionally well. Thanks for shedding light on a story that might otherwise not have been told to much of the audience AP reaches.”

For engaging,insightful coverage that gives voice to women who have suffered the consequences of an abortion ban,shedding light on an issue that sharply divides opinions in the U.S. and beyond, Henao and Wardarski earn AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner honors.

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