El Salvador and ‘Las 17’

Image from the Centre for Reproductive Rights

Last month in El Salvador, a young woman walked free after nearly a decade behind bars. Carmen Guadalupe Vásquez Aldana was just 18 when, in 2008, she was sentenced to 30 years in jail. Her crime? Having a miscarriage.

El Salvador has one of the world’s most draconian abortion statutes. It criminalizes abortion on all grounds, including when the mother’s life or health is in danger, and in cases of rape. Women and girls cannot access an abortion even if continuing their pregnancy will kill them, or if their fetuses are not viable.

Those who defy the law and seek unsafe, clandestine abortions face horrifying consequences: The World Health Organization in 2008 reported that 9 percent of maternal deaths in Central America are due to such procedures.

Generally, wealthier Salvadorans can pay for private services or seek adequate medical care abroad. Most frequently, the law’s victims are patients in the country’s public clinics where doctors, fearing criminal prosecution, call the police when a woman arrives in pain.

This is what happened to Ms. Vásquez, whose lawyer, Dennis Muñoz, has characterized the abortion policy as a “witch hunt against poor women.”

El Salvador is extremely conservative, and the Catholic Church’s influence extends into political decision making.

In the 1990s, during the country’s fragile years of rebuilding after over a decade of civil war, a targeted church campaign led to the implementation, in 1998, of the total ban.

Today, church power operates alongside a well-funded and well-connected lobby that campaigns against abortion rights, and a press that is quick to accuse women who miscarry of being criminals. The few politicians who have criticized the ban have faced a public backlash.

Ms. Vásquez became pregnant after being raped. When she miscarried and was taken to a hospital in San Salvador, the capital, her doctors accused her of having intentionally terminated her pregnancy.

Despite the paucity of evidence against her, she was convicted of aggravated homicide, and imprisoned.

Her case is hardly unique. According to the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizens’ Coalition for the Decriminalization of Abortion), an El Salvador-based advocacy group, 129 women were prosecuted for abortion-related crimes in the country between 2000 and 2011. Of these, 23 were convicted of receiving an illegal abortion; 26 were convicted of homicide.

Ms. Vásquez is herself just one of 17 women (“Las 17”) who between 1999 and 2011 were sentenced to up to 40 years in jail following reported miscarriages, most on charges of aggravated homicide. (While no official statistics are available, Amnesty International estimates that at least five more women currently await sentencing on similar pregnancy-related charges.)

In April, “Las 17” became the focus of a global campaign when, after years of effort and having exhausted all other legal remedies, their lawyers requested a presidential pardon.

Last year I visited Ilopango prison, the all-female facility just outside San Salvador where Ms. Vásquez and most of the other members of “Las 17” were incarcerated.

As is characteristic of El Salvador jails, Ilopango is squalid and cramped: Overcrowding stands at nearly 1,000 percent, according to some estimates. Women sleep some 40 to a cell; one prison guard told me that over 100 children under five live there with their mothers.

In January, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly granted Ms. Vásquez’s pardon, on grounds that due process had been violated in her original trial. Additional cases will be brought in the coming months.

While Ms. Vásquez’s victory is encouraging, many are anticipating a backlash from the Assembly. (Though no official statement has been made by El Salvador, it has been suggested to Amnesty that no further pardons will be approved.)

The Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, and activists like Morena Herrera, who with Colectiva Feminista, an El Salvador-based organization, has for years been fighting the abortion ban, are exploring legal avenues for freeing the remaining members of “Las 17” should their pardons be rejected.

One option may be to take their cases to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in Washington. Amnesty will soon present a petition with over 200,000 signatures to President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, urging him to overturn the abortion laws.

Five other Latin American countries have similar abortion bans, including Chile, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname.

Of these, Chile is taking steps to rectify its statutes: In January, President Michelle Bachelet presented her Congress with a draft bill that would permit abortion when a mother’s life is at risk; if a fetus will not survive; or in cases of rape. If passed, the bill would reverse that country’s total abortion ban, implemented in 1989. And in December the Dominican Republic decriminalized abortion in cases of rape, incest, fetal impairment or when the mother’s life is at risk.

Hopefully these actions will exert pressure on El Salvadoran lawmakers to re-examine and overhaul their country’s repressive abortion ban.

Ms. Vásquez’s exoneration is a victory in the long fight for women’s rights in Latin America, but there is much to be done. El Salvador must end its excessive practice of criminalizing women’s sexual and reproductive health and decisions, and free the members of “Las 17” who remain unfairly imprisoned for suffering miscarriages. Their nightmare cannot end soon enough.

This article was first published in the New York Times.