World’s Harshest Abortion Law Sent a Woman to Prison for 9 Years for a Stillbirth

A young woman in El Salvador sentenced to 30 years after a stillbirth was freed early, and pleads with the government “to see things as they are.”
Salvadorean Sara Rogel reacts during a press conference after being released, in San salvador, on June 08, 2021.
Salvadorean Sara Rogel reacts during a press conference after being released, in San salvador, on June 08, 2021. (Photo by MARVIN RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images)

A young woman who served almost nine years of a 30-year sentence for aggravated homicide after she suffered a stillbirth asked El Salvador’s government to change the draconian abortion law that has put dozens of women like her in prison.

Sara Rogel García, 29, was let out of prison last month after her sentence was reduced to 10 years and she qualified for early release. 

“We women deserve an opportunity because there are things that come out of nowhere, like what happened to me with this accident,” she told VICE World News in an interview.  “I would ask [the government]  to be more considerate, to see things as they are.” 

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Rogel was arrested in October 2012 after she slipped and fell while washing clothes eight months into her pregnancy. The impact caused her to lose consciousness, and her baby was stillborn. By the time she awoke in the hospital, she was handcuffed to her bed. 

Four days later, while still recovering from her injuries, not to mention the emotional toll of having lost a baby she had been looking forward to having, she was sent to jail.

El Salvador has one of the world’s strictest bans on abortion and some of the harshest penalties in Latin America. That has created a climate in which any woman who suffers a miscarriage or an obstetric emergency is immediately viewed with suspicion. Dozens of mostly poor, rural women have been quickly tried and sentenced to long prison terms since the total ban was enacted in 1998.

Although Rogel has been released, at least 16 other women remain imprisoned on similar charges, according to Morena Herrera, director of the women’s rights group Agrupación Ciudadana. 

The situation is so grave, says Herrera, that doctors, out of fear that they too could be prosecuted, often refuse to treat women with obstetric emergencies until a fetal heartbeat is no longer detected, placing the mothers’ lives in danger.

Ectopic pregnancies, for example, in which a fertilized egg develops outside the uterus, can be life-threatening and the embryo, which is not viable, must be removed.

“Almost nowhere else in the world are there deaths for ectopic pregnancies, but in El Salvador they exist,” said Herrera. 

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The absolute ban on abortion in El Salvador—which is one of only four countries in Latin America with no exceptions for rape, incest or to save the life of the mother—coupled with high rates of violence against women, leads to dire consequences for women and girls across the country. 

“Femicides continue, there are still high rates of sexual violence, mainly against adolescents and young women,” said Herrera of the women who are forced to continue their pregnancies,. “There is no institutional commitment to protection,” she said, adding that at least 100 girls aged 12 or younger in the country had given birth in the first trimester of this year. 

The toll of El Salvador’s abortion ban is suffered disproportionately by economically disadvantaged women. Whereas women from well-to-do families are able to pay for clandestine abortion services at private clinics, or fly to another country where abortion is legal, poor women, in particular those who live in rural areas, are forced to give birth regardless of their age or the circumstances. 

Activists say poor women are also more likely to be charged with an  abortion-related crime when they seek out medical care for a miscarriage. A study by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that almost 60 percent of the accusations of abortion between 2002 and 2010 were first reported by medical professionals.  

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The working group’s review of Rogel’s case, along with those of two other imprisoned women, concluded that El Salvador’s total ban on abortion had led to the systematic criminalization of women who had suffered obstectric emergencies.

Between 2000 and 2011, the working group found, 129 women had been tried for abortion and homicide. And trials continued after that time period: Rogel was convicted in 2013 and the two other women whose cases the experts reviewed were convicted in 2014 and 2017. 

“In all three cases, the guilt of the defendants was assumed, denying them the presumption of innocence, violating guarantees of due process,” the working group’s five experts wrote, calling on the Salvadoran government to change the country’s laws. 

Rogel, who comes from a humble family in a rural part of the country, was assigned a public defender at her first hearing only moments before the court was called into session. 

That same day, she had been scheduled to take a final exam for high school. 

“Her grandmother arrived outside the courthouse with the uniform [Rogel] was going to wear to take her exam and begged the judge to let her go take that exam and not to send her to jail,” said Herrera. 

The day of her accident, Rogel had been washing clothes for money to pay for school, just as she had been doing since she was 11 years old. Now that she has been freed from prison, she plans to finish her studies and also hopes to open a corner store in her home. 

Because she’s on parole, and still has a conviction on her record, she may encounter difficulties finding employment, which is one of the reasons activists will continue to fight to have her conviction overturned.

In the meantime, Rogel is happy to be home and reunited with her family. “Every day I wake up very motivated to spend time with them, to enjoy every second and moment with them,” she said.

That motivation extends to fighting for her friends who remain in prison serving long jail sentences.

“I promised them that upon leaving prison that I was going to do everything possible to help them. They deserve an opportunity just as I have been given one,” Rogel said.