A judge in El Salvador has sentenced a woman to 30 years in prison after she suffered a medical emergency and lost her unborn baby, according to a reproductive rights group. The judge found the 28-year-old woman guilty of homicide.
The lengthy sentence was shocking even in El Salvador, a country that has one of the most stringent anti-abortion laws in the world, but where rights groups have made inroads obtaining the release of women serving decades-long sentences for abortion.
The woman, identified only as Esme, is the first in seven years to be sentenced and imprisoned, according to rights groups, and the first under President Nayib Bukele, who has called abortion a ”great genocide.”
Notably, the sentence was handed down as many in the U.S. prepare for a future in which abortion is criminalized across much of the country. At least 20 states are expected to ban abortion if the majority-conservative U.S. Supreme Court overrules the 49-year-old Roe v. Wade decision that guarantees the right to an abortion, as suggested by a leaked draft opinion obtained by Politico last week.
Esme sought medical attention from a hospital in El Salvador in October 2019 during her pregnancy, according to the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion. Hospital employees often report women who are miscarrying to the police. She spent two years in pre-trial detention before being released in October 2021. But on Monday, back in court, a judge found her guilty of murder and sentenced her to 30 years’ imprisonment, the group said. The name of the judge and the woman have not been released to protect her identity, the group told VICE World News.
“This sentence is a blow to our efforts to release women unjustly incarcerated and a violation of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which has said obstetric emergencies must be treated as a health problem,” Morena Herrera, president of the group, told VICE World News. She said she didn’t think the sentence was a result of current events in the U.S. but added there is a “historical connection” in the global push to criminalize abortion.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in November 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.
El Salvador 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 then been sentenced by judges to decades in prison.
Over the past two decades, more than 180 women in El Salvador who suffered obstetric emergencies—health problems that cause a woman to lose her baby after 20 weeks of pregnancy—have been prosecuted for abortion or aggravated homicide, according to activists. While prosecutors sometimes dropped the charges, dozens of women ended up in prison.
El Salvador’s abortion ban has been toughest on poor, rural women with little access to prenatal care, which means they are more vulnerable to losing their pregnancies. Such is the case with Esme, whom activists said is “very poor” and from a rural area in the eastern part of the country.
Women's rights activists in El Salvador have fought one by one to win the release of women they believe are wrongly convicted, and to date have helped free more than 60 women since 2009. But their grassroots campaign to rewrite one of the world’s strictest abortion laws has so far failed.
President Bukele, who is hugely popular and deeply authoritarian, has frequently expressed his opposition to abortion. In a March 2020 interview with the Puerto Rican rapper Residente, he said that even rape victims should be required to bring their pregnancies to term. But he has expressed concern that women are unfairly charged in the case of medical emergencies.
“One thing I do oppose is that in countries like ours, women are criminalized for having miscarriages. Because they’re poor, they are automatically accused of having an abortion,” Bukele said.
Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Honduras also have total bans on abortion.
“We are all very concerned about what’s happening in the U.S. because we see what happens when a country has a total ban on abortions,” said Elida Caballero Cabrera, a director at the D.C.-based Women’s Equality Center, which advocates for reproductive rights. “Women are stigmatized and sent to jail just for having an obstetric emergency, miscarriage, and stillbirth.”