Women in El Salvador Are Being Jailed for Decades for Having Miscarriages
As the United States enters a period of uncertainty regarding Roe v. Wade, which codified not only a woman’s right to choose but the right to privacy on a national level, we should look to El Salvador as a grim indicator of our future.
“Don’t let our reality become your reality,” say activists fighting to free the hundreds of women currently behind bars in El Salvador for miscarriages, attempted abortions and unavoidable medical emergencies.
In 1973, the Salvadorian Penal Code allowed abortion under one of three conditions: if a congenital disorder was detected in the fetus, if the pregnant woman’s life was endangered by the pregnancy or if the pregnancy was the result of rape or statutory rape. However, since April 20, 1998, abortion has been outlawed in El Salvador with no exceptions for rape, incest or life-threatening medical emergencies after a 1997 vote. This amendment to the Salvadorian Penal Code has put hundreds of women behind bars through no fault of their own.
According to an article in The Guardian, “The Salvadorian anti-abortion law, which was subsequently written into the constitution, has led to at least 182 women who suffered an obstetric emergency being prosecuted for abortion or aggravated homicide.”
Take the case of 33-year-old Jacqueline, who was freed from prison Wednesday after serving 10 years of a 15-year sentence for attempted murder. Jacqueline was imprisoned for seeking medical attention due to an obstetric emergency in 2011. She is now “the 65th woman to be freed having been wrongly jailed on murder charges following a miscarriage or other obstetric emergency since the total ban on abortion came into force in 1998,” per the article.
The law has disproportionately affected low-income Salvadorian women from rural areas who were reported by hospital workers. Although 10 women have been freed since last December thanks to the efforts of “Salvadorian lawyers and activists,” three women remain behind bars:
María del Rosario was 23 when she was sentenced to 30 years after she started hemorrhaging. María’s pregnancy was the result of rape, and while her rapist was acquitted of all charges, she’s spent the last decade in prison.
Liliana was 21 and expecting her second child when a medical emergency landed her a 30-year sentence. Although her sentence was cut in half, she’s been separated from her daughter for the last seven years.
Finally, there’s the case of Bertha Arana. At the age of 28, Arana “was convicted of attempted murder in 2012 after suffering a medical emergency, even though her daughter survived.” However, every attempt to secure her release has been blocked because the child was born in Guatemala and is, therefore, not a citizen of El Salvador. Arana has still not met her daughter.
The article continues:
“Each case has taken a sustained campaign of protests, public health efforts and media pressure, according to Morena Herrera, a reproductive rights campaigner who recalls the moment when lawmakers, spurred on by the religious right, voted to ban abortion without exception in April 1997. ‘I warned them that this law would end the presumption of innocence for pregnant women, which is exactly what happened. It’s this same risk that the U.S. is now facing,’ said Herrera.”
Just last week, a 28-year-old woman named Esme was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide following a miscarriage. She is “the first woman convicted for an obstetric complication in seven years.”
“The injustice continues, I can’t escape it. I’m so tired of fighting to clear my name, to be given an opportunity to live my life,” said Cristina Quintanilla, who served four years after a miscarriage in 2005. “It’s very unfortunate what’s happening here. Americans face a very uncertain future, it will be chaos.”
“We realised that human rights standards and legal strategy would never be enough,” said Paula Ávila-Guillén, a human rights lawyer in New York. “We also needed mass mobilizations, activism, political work and a communication strategy, and that’s what the U.S. will need to do to win hearts and minds and get our rights back.”
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