El Salvador is one of five Latin American countries, along with Nicaragua, Honduras, Dominican Republic, and Chile, that does not allow any form of abortion, in any circumstance — and scores of women have been imprisoned for suffering miscarriages.
Earlier this month, feminist and pro-choice groups launched a campaign to officially pardon 17 women who have been convicted of aggravated homicide after being admitted to public hospitals with failed pregnancies.
On April 1, the campaigners protested in the streets of San Salvador and organized a procession starting at Ilapongo’s Rehabilitation Center For Women, where the accused women are being held.
The organizations also petitioned Salvadorian Congress, filing an appeal under the Special Law for Appeals of Grace, which is allowed to grant pardons, and could do so in this case if all three State powers — legislative, executive and judicial — approve.
At least 129 women in El Salvador have been incarcerated between 2000 and 2011 after having miscarriages.
Criminalized by a justice system that does not allow any type of abortion, these women who have been unable to carry their pregnancies to term end up leaving their hospital beds and heading straight to jail — accused of aggravated homicide.
Salvadorian legislators have been unrelenting in their cases against each of these women, who are homemakers, maids, high school and college students, laborers, peasants, waitresses — and the list goes on.
Since the 1998 Penal Code reform in El Salvador, all forms of abortion have been punishable by two to eight years in prison.
With these regulations the government criminalized, in one fell swoop, all three forms of previously allowed abortion: therapeutic abortion, used in cases where the pregnancy endangers the woman’s health; eugenic abortion, in which the fetus is not viable due to deformity or other problems; and ethical abortion, which was performed when the pregnancy was the result of incest or rape.
Morena Herrera, who oversees the Decriminalization of Therapeutic, Ethical and Eugenic Abortion NGO, claims that the common thread among all of the accused women is crippling poverty.
“Each and every one of them are young women who live in dire poverty, with a very low level of education,” Herrera told VICE News.
“The DA changed the type of crime [from a misdemeanor to a felony] and ended up prosecuting them for aggravated homicide against their own child, which raises the penalty up to 30, 40, or even 50 years behind bars,” Herrera added.
Herrera’s organization is also responsible for a study released last March on the abortion ban in El Salvador. “Applying these restrictions generates violations on due process, privacy, freedom from violence, and cruel and inhumane treatment,” the document warns.
The study reveals another common element among the accused — they all sought treatment at public hospitals, where they were later reported to the authorities.
“Did you know that all of the criminal reports originate in public hospitals? Not one — I repeat — not one of these cases came from private hospitals, because at these medical centers if a woman comes in, suffering from complications, they induce an abortion and that is the end of that,” Herrera said.
In 2013 both the UN and Amnesty International requested that the government of El Salvador changes the country’s abortion laws.
Last June the UN asked El Salvador to “reconsider its anti-abortion legislation, and offer these women the legal protection that they deserve.”
Amnesty International also put special emphasis on the need to decriminalize therapeutic abortion. Esther Major, a Central America researcher at Amnesty International, told VICE News: “We are demanding the Salvadorian State reconsider its laws penalizing therapeutic abortion.”
In 2004, 18-year-old Cristina Quintanilla suffered a miscarriage in her seventh month of pregnancy.
She lost consciousness at home and upon regaining it she found herself in the hospital, surrounded by police — with one hand cuffed to the frame of her hospital bed.
“I was pregnant; I was with my husband; I was happy. I kept the baby clothes, because I was excited, but I lost my child on October 26, 2004,” Quintanilla, the young mother of two children — who was later convicted of aggravated homicide, leaving her and her family stunned — told VICE News.
Quintanilla’s case shook the justice system, but also went unnoticed by the majority of the public, since this is just another case of many.
In 2009, with the help of Herrera’s group, a judge agreed to review Quintanilla’s case and reduced her sentence to four years — though she will still be legally marked as a criminal for the rest of her life.
Quintanilla told VICE News, “When I got out of jail I was happy, but now I can’t believe that I missed four years of my son’s life — his first day of school, his first words, his first steps. That is something they can never give me back.”