By Isabella Cota
SAN JOSE (Reuters) - The regional human rights court for the Americas on Thursday told El Salvador it must let doctors perform an abortion on a woman carrying a seriously deformed fetus that has put her life at risk, but the Central American nation was not bound by the move.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights took the action after El Salvador's Supreme Court issued a ruling on Wednesday rejecting an appeal brought by the 22-year-old woman at the center of the case. She had sought an abortion even though El Salvador banned all types of abortion in 1999.
The woman uses the name "Beatriz" to protect her identity. Her fetus has a serious condition known as anencephaly that results in only partial brain development. Such a fetus has little or no chance of surviving after birth.
Beatriz, meanwhile, suffers from lupus and kidney problems, posing a grave threat to her own health.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica, said El Salvador needs to take urgent action to protect the life of Beatriz. That means performing an abortion, a spokeswoman for the court said.
It has asked El Salvador's government to comply with its nonbinding resolution before June 8. The court does not have the power to take steps against member countries such as El Salvador.
The case has brought new attention to El Salvador's strict abortion laws. Women found guilty of having an abortion in El Salvador face lengthy jail sentences.
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Attitudes in Latin America, a predominantly Roman Catholic region, are slowly changing toward abortion with some countries such as Colombia relaxing their rules in order to permit abortions in the case of rape.
Beatriz, who is 26 weeks pregnant, had asked El Salvador's top court to approve the abortion. But in a 4-1 ruling, the court refused her request.
"The rights of the mother cannot be privileged over those of the unborn child," the court said in its decision, arguing "the Constitution protects human life from the point of conception."
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is part of the rights framework for the 35 members of the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS).
El Salvador is among the countries that have signed the organization's American Convention on Human Rights.
Article 4 of that convention, entitled the "Right to Life," states: "Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life."
When ratifying the convention, El Salvador said it recognized the competence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights "insofar as this recognition is compatible with the provisions in the Constitution" of El Salvador.
The Latin American nations that permit abortions during normal pregnancies are Uruguay, Cuba and former British colony Guyana. Mexico City's leftist local government decided to allow abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Argentina's Supreme Court ruled last year that all rape victims have the right to a legal abortion, clarifying an ambiguously worded law and reflecting a gradual change in attitudes toward abortion in society.
However, there has been no big push for abortion to be made legal in Argentina, and President Cristina Fernandez has said she does not support legalized abortion.
(Reporting by Nelson Renteria in San Salvador and Isabella Cota in San Jose; Additional reporting by Hilary Burke in Buenos Aires; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Dave Graham and Will Dunham)