A judge in El Salvador sentenced a woman to 50 years in prison after she suffered an obstetric emergency and lost her fetus in the ninth month of pregnancy, according to reproductive rights activists. She was found guilty of homicide.
The sentencing last week of Lesli Lisbeth Ramírez Ramírez, who was 19 when her pregnancy ended, appears to be the harshest ever handed down in El Salvador to a woman suspected of trying to abort her pregnancy.
Activists said the penalty was steeped in gender discrimination, and criminalizes women who suffer obstetric emergencies.
In May, another woman, identified only as Esme, was sentenced to 30 years in prison under similar circumstances. Esme was the first woman in seven years to be sentenced and imprisoned for having an obstetric emergency, according to rights groups, and the first under President Nayib Bukele.
The sentencing came after Bukele appeared to be softening on some of the policies around abortion—he has called abortion a “great genocide” but also stated that women shouldn’t be imprisoned for obstetric emergencies.
The same judge—Ricardo Torres Arieta—sentenced both women, activists said. A sentencing court judge in San Miguel, Torres didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment sent to his LinkedIn account. A spokeswoman for the state prosecutor’s office also didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Ramírez suffered an obstetric emergency at home in June 2020, activists said. She said she felt the desire to defecate, and when she sat down on the toilet, lost the fetus. She said that she didn’t realize she was pregnant. After family members called 911 to seek help, the police arrived and took her to the hospital. She was detained shortly after on suspicion of murder, and released after two years in preventive detention.
In justifying the 50-year sentence, Torres told Ramírez, who is now 23, that “mothers are the source of protection for their children in any circumstance of life, and you were not,” according to Citizen Group, which advocates for reproductive rights and is supporting Ramírez.
Ramírez’s attorney, Abigail Cortez, said she was still waiting for the official sentencing document from the hearing, at which point she would file an appeal. Cortez said there was a “peak” of women who unintentionally lost their pregnancies during the pandemic because they couldn’t access medical care.
“At that time the pandemic was the priority and not women’s health care,” she said. She criticized the judge for not taking into account expert opinions presented by the defense, including what she said was evidence of domestic violence and extreme poverty, as well as a psychiatric evaluation of Ramírez.
The sentencing underscores the complicated context for women in El Salvador suspected of having an abortion. Activists have been successful in winning the release of more than 60 women they believe were wrongly convicted.
In November, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights also ruled that El Salvador violated the rights of a woman who died in prison in 2010 while serving a 30-year sentence for aggravated homicide after suffering a stillbirth. The court said El Salvador must pay reparations to the woman’s family and develop policies that protect women who suffer obstetric emergencies.
But the lengthy sentences for Ramírez and Esme underscore just how conservative a country El Salvador remains when it comes to reproductive rights. It is one of five Latin American countries with a total ban on abortion, including in cases of rape or when the woman’s life is at risk.
Women convicted of abortion face up to eight years in prison. Many women have been charged with homicide after stillbirths and miscarriages, and then been sentenced by judges to decades in prison.