In 2004, Cristina Quintanilla was pregnant for the second time. Eight months into her pregnancy, she started feeling discomfort, which she assumed at first was normal. One night the pain was so excruciating she passed out at home, only learning later she miscarried. Her mother and stepfather took her to a local hospital for emergency treatment. But that's not what she received.
Because Cristina lives in El Salvador, she was immediately interrogated by police and arrested under suspicion of obtaining an illegal abortion. Months later, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide.
Cristina's story is far too common in El Salvador, where for more than 16 years abortion has been illegal under any circumstance. Today, pregnant women in El Salvador live under a cloud of suspicion and fear, placing their health, lives, and freedom at risk as soon as they enter a hospital seeking critical medical services. Countless women have been sentenced to years—even decades—in deplorable prisons because of the country's abortion ban.
When we heard Cristina's story and those of Las 17—the more than a dozen women in El Salvador who suffered obstetric emergencies and later wrongly imprisoned for homicide—we had to take action. As strong advocates for women's rights, we felt compelled to speak out. As members of Congress responsible for appropriating American foreign assistance to El Salvador, we want our investments to reflect our values. Our constituents here in the US needed to know about these egregious human rights violations. With the support of 53 of our colleagues in Congress, we wrote to US Secretary of State John Kerry about calling on President Salvador Sanchez Cerén to review the cases of Las 17, with an eye toward freeing them.
Pregnant women in El Salvador like Cristina who are wrongfully accused of having an abortion end up in prison with a target on their backs and experience severe discrimination, as well as physical and verbal abuse. Cristina slept in a cell with 84 other inmates and endured cruel "cavity searches" that amounted to sexual assault, among other atrocities during her time in prison.
Almost two years into her prison sentence, she finally was able to work with an attorney on her release. It was an uphill battle, but they were able to prove a violation of due process during her investigation and trial. The Salvadoran Supreme Court of Justice determined that her sentence was excessive and lowered it to the three years she had already served. Cristina was released in August 2009, nearly four years after entering prison.
Cristina is sharing her story this week in Washington, DC, at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—the main human rights body for the Americas—to put a face behind the human rights abuses of pregnant women in El Salvador. She will be speaking alongside representatives of local and international human rights groups, including Agrupación Ciudadana and the Center for Reproductive Rights, that are leading a coalition of NGOs calling for the release of Las 17. Earlier this year Guadalupe, one of Las 17 was pardoned, but the government of El Salvador refused to release the remaining women still wrongfully imprisoned.
Cristina's story and those of other Salvadoran women who end up behind bars because they lost their pregnancies demonstrate the lack of social justice for women in El Salvador. Most of these imprisoned women are poor, living in rural areas, and have little to no education. They are the ones who are wrongfully targeted, vilified, and publicly shamed in order to set an example in El Salvador of what will happen to any woman who dares to end a pregnancy—even though none of these women had an abortion.
What President Sanchez Cerén of El Salvador has allowed on his watch is the ongoing persecution of pregnant women who need emergency medical attention and who are denied justice. This has to be stopped.
We and our colleagues in the House of Representatives urge Secretary of State Kerry to urge President Sanchez Cerén to revisit the cases of Las 17, and that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights gets involved to end this wrongful imprisonment of women.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a Democratic Representative from Florida's 23rd District. Norma Torres is a Democratic Representative from California's 35th District.