The application of El Salvador’s complete ban on abortion is among the most draconian in the world.
One thing that makes it so barbaric is that women who miscarry can be convicted of murder and be sentenced to 30 to 40 years in prison. Right now there are at least 15 women (called Las 17) living in El Salvador’s notoriously over-crowded, violent prisons just for having a miscarriage.
Approximately one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, so in El Salvador every woman who gets pregnant is at risk of ending up in jail.
Actually, its not every woman – those who can afford it go to private hospitals and clinics where they receive proper care (including abortions) and privacy. Poor women, however, must rely on the public hospitals and clinics where they may receive good care, or be treated as criminals.
In recent months, the case of Carmen Guadelupe Vasquez has gotten some international attention. After a long battle, advocates secured her release after she miscarried and was convicted for murder. Guadelupe served more than 7 years of her 30-year sentance. Guadelupe’s is not an uncommon story. At the age of 18 she was working as a maid for a family in San Salvador. The family’s neighbor raped Guadelupe and she became pregnant. She miscarried and sought care at a public hospital where a nurse or doctor called the police. Guadelupe was arrested and handcuffed to her bed.
The Salvadoran Supreme Court recently recommended to the Legislative Assembly that Guadelupe be pardoned due to the manner in which the courts handled her case. It took the Legislative Assembly two votes but in January 2015 they finally voted to release her.
One incredible aspect of these cases is how easy it is to convict women accused of violating the abortion ban or homicide. The impunity rate for violent crimes against woman (including rape and murder) is between 95 and 97%. That means if a man rapes or kills a woman, he’s got a good chance of getting away with it. Prosecutors and judges, however, have no problem convicting women for having a miscarriage, and basing that conviction on little or no evidence.
Last year National Public Radio did a story on Christina Quintanilla who was convicted for murder after having a miscarriage. Her conviction was over-turned when an attorney argued that her original conviction was not based on any evidence.
At least fifteen women remain incarcerated for murder after having a miscarriage. While advocates like Morena Horrera of the Feminist Collective and Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion celebrate Guadelupe’s recent release, they continue to seek justice for the others. Advocates have petitioned the Supreme Court on behalf of all 15 women. The court has denied six of these petitions and has yet to decide on the other nine. Advocates have asked the United Nations and other international agencies to intervene.
The Center for Reproductive Rights is currently circulating a petition asking that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intervene on behalf of Las 17 – please go to their site and sign the petition… and stay informed – El Salvador won’t be repealing the abortion law anytime soon, and more women are likely to be convicted.