When Teodora Vásquez was 24 years old, she was pregnant with her second child. One day during her ninth month, she experienced some piercing pain, according to The Guardian. She called emergency services for help, but lost consciousness due to bleeding. Later, she woke up to police officers accusing her of killing her baby. In 2008, she was sent to prison for aggravated homicide.
“She never even got to hold her baby girl in her arms,” Cecilia Vásquez de Ramos, Vásquez’s sister, told the Guardian.
Today, a court will decide if Vásquez, who has spent the last 10 years in prison, will have to finish out the remainder of her 30-year sentence.
El Salvador is one of a handful of countries in the world that criminalizes abortion in all instances, including cases of rape, incest, and medical emergencies. Advocates fighting on behalf of women like Vásquez say that too often when women suffer miscarriages or stillbirths, officials make the case that they self-induced an abortion. While the punishment for such a “crime” is up to eight years in jail, prosecutors often change the charge to aggravated murder if a fetus or newborn has died.
"They are being persecuted for not having perfect pregnancies or having perfect babies, which is absolutely outrageous," Paula Avila-Guillen, an advocacy advisor at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told Broadly in 2015. "It's one of the greatest human rights violations that we have seen in the region."
During the hearing today—presided by the same judges who sentenced her ten years ago—Vásquez’s attorneys will make the case that she was wrongfully convicted. One of her lawyers, Katia Recinos, told Al Jazeera she believes her client will be freed. They were able to persuade the court to review the case, she explained, because the "forensic investigation was not executed correctly.”
"[The Institute of] Legal Medicine established that the baby died due to perinatal asphyxia, but we were able to determine [that] the baby was dead before she was born," Recinos said.
A number of advocates have been working to bring attention to Vásquez’s case, and others like hers. Amnesty International Norway, for example, launched an online campaign and hijacked an FM frequency in Oslo to broadcast a “distress signal” about the ordeal Vásquez has endured. It reached 92 countries and more than a million listeners. Their goal, John Peder Egenaes, the director Amnesty International Norway, said in a statement, was to let Salvadoran authorities know “the world is aware of Teodora’s case.”
At the heart of this case and others like it is El Salvador’s draconian take on reproductive rights. Last year, the ruling party proposed reforming the criminal code to decriminalize abortion in certain circumstances, Egenaes tells Broadly. Those instances include when the pregnancy puts a woman's health is in danger, if the fetus isn't viable, and if the pregnancy is the result of sexual violence. “The debate about the law has been postponed several times since May this year, when it originally was scheduled to take place,” he says. “But we hope that the election next year in El Salvador will provide a window of opportunity to change the law.”
In the meantime, advocates say Vásquez’s case is just another example of how the country unfairly targets women who have complicated pregnancies. “According to the Salvadoran organization Agrupación Ciudadano,” Egenaes says, “at least 25 women are currently imprisoned and convicted for homicide after having had a miscarriage or experienced other obstetric emergencies.”
And they all have a similar backstory, says Catalina Martinez, the Center for Reproductive Rights’ regional director for Latin America. “They came from rural, low socioeconomic statuses, had obstetric emergencies (that means either miscarriage or stillbirth), they sought medical assistance, and were accused of having an abortion. At the end, they [ended up] in jail for more than 30 years.”
Martinez is currently in El Salvador for today’s hearing, and tells Broadly there’s “a lot of expectation” in the air. At the time of the interview with Broadly, the trial was in recess after two medical experts testified that Vásquez’s baby died of natural cases, not violence. Vásquez also took the stand and retold her story, Martinez says.
The way today’s case turns out could have a ripple effect on similar situations of women imprisoned for unforeseen obstetric emergencies. She points to the example of Maria Teresa Rivera, another Salvadoran woman who was punished for the death of her newborn—she was released after serving four-and-a-half years. “We are hoping that that precedent is going to influence the decision that the judge is going to make today,” and ultimately impact the outcomes of future cases, Martinez says.
Update: The court decided on Wednesday to uphold Vásquez's 30-year sentence.