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Woman Imprisoned for Having a Miscarriage as a Teen Now Begging for Action

We talked to Cristina Quintanilla, a Salvadoran woman who was imprisoned for having a miscarriage, about why the country needs to change its draconian abortion ban.
October 19, 2015, 7:11pm
Image via Stocksy/Alejandro Moreno de Carlos

The day before Cristina Quintanilla was arrested for murdering her baby, she remembers feeling slightly off. She was seven months into her pregnancy, so at first she didn't think much of it. She drank water with some sugar to feel better. But in the middle of the night, she got up to use the bathroom. "When I sat down I felt pressure in my chest like I was losing breath and I couldn't move," she remembers. "Then it all went black, but later I found out that there in the toilet is where I had my miscarriage."

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It was 2004, and 18-year-old Quintanilla, already a mother of one, was rushed to the local hospital for emergency care. After waking up in the surgery ward, Quintanilla was met by police officers, who were there on suspicion that Quintanilla had willfully attempted to end her pregnancy. "I didn't understand why there were people dressed in blue asking for my name. I was like, 'Doctors wear white. I don't get it,'" she says.

"Then the man in blue told me I was being arrested for having an illegal abortion and having killed my baby. I was in shock. I couldn't talk. I was in a bad state already; it really affected me."

The day Quintanilla lost her baby, she was arrested. In 2005, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison on charges of aggravated homicide.

Read more: When Having a Miscarriage Can Get You Life in Prison

Abortion is illegal in El Salvador in all circumstances­—even in instances of rape, incest, or when necessary to save a woman's life. The restrictive ban also puts pressure on medical professionals to report women to the police who have suffered pregnancy-related emergencies on suspicion of attempting to have an abortion. As a result, countless women like Quintanilla who have suffered miscarriages, stillbirths, and other medical emergencies have been wrongly convicted of homicide and sentenced to prison.

After spending four years in prison, Quintanilla was able to work with a lawyer to reduce her sentence, and she was released in 2009. Today, she joined representatives from the Center for Reproductive Rights and Agrupación Ciudadana at a hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, DC, to share her story and speak out against the ban. "The fundamental rights of Cristina and all Salvadoran women are being cast aside by El Salvador's refusal to recognize the consequences of this draconian law," says Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, in a statement released this morning. "We call on the Inter-American Commission to hold El Salvador accountable for the gross violations of the human rights of Cristina and every Salvadoran women who has been wrongfully imprisoned."

It pains me to know that these women are doing time for crimes they didn't commit.

Though the Salvadoran government has yet to respond to the allegations, Paula Avila-Guillen, the advocacy adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights, says today's hearing was successful. "The commissioners highlighted the importance of Cristina's case and the countless Salvadoran women whose human rights were violated," she says. "We hope the Inter-American Commission will travel to El Salvador to see on the ground for themselves the impact of the restrictive law and how it affects women."

Quintanilla echoes those same sentiments, fully aware of the women across El Salvador who live in fear of the ban, as well as of the countless women still in prison because of it. "When I tell people my story, there are people who believe me and those who don't. It's true because I lived it," says Quintanilla, who has also spoken out about the dehumanizing abuse and sexual assault she experienced while in prison, during which time she was forced to sleep in a cell with 84 other inmates and subject to regular "cavity searches."

"It still hurts me because today in El Salvador there are women in prison because of a situation similar to mine," she says. "It pains me to know that these women are doing time for crimes they didn't commit."

Read more: In Chile, Women Live Under an Absolute Ban on All Abortions

More than anything, Quintanilla wants El Salvador to stop criminalizing and wrongfully imprisoning women for having imperfect pregnancies. "What we need is for the law to protect women, and that's what I hope to see for El Salvador."