After spending 10 years of her 30-year sentence in a Salvadoran prison and hoping for a successful appeal of her former conviction, Teodora del Carmen Vasquez was told that her appeal had been denied by the El Salvador courts. Additionally her 2007 sentence – in which she had been charged with homicide under the country’s archaic abortion laws – had been upheld, despite the fact that Vasquez and her legal team argued that she had given birth to a stillborn baby.
Like many other women in her situation, Vasquez was young and poor when she became pregnant with her second child. After suffering immense pain during her pregnancy, she repeatedly called emergency services for help, which never arrived. After giving birth in a school bathroom, she fainted and woke up only moments before a police patrol arrived to arrest her for homicide. Vasquez was initially denied medical treatment or care, despite the fact that she was still losing blood. Even after she was taken to a hospital, she was denied information about her condition or her child and only months later, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide.
While many Latin American countries have restrictive abortion laws, El Salvador is one of only five countries in the world that enforces a total ban on abortion in any and all circumstances – including in cases of rape, incest, or significant risk to the mother’s life. Abortion was first criminalized in El Salvador in 1998 prior to which abortion in specific high-risk cases was allowed. The change was largely due to the high influence of the Catholic Church in El Salvador who lobbied the conservative government extensively before the government favoured the Church to secure the conservative vote.
As a result, women (and medical practitioners and staff that in any way aid these women) can face anywhere between two to eight years in prison for having an abortion, and in some cases, can face up to 50-year sentences for aggravated homicide.
This law has also created a culture of intense fear and stigma and a lack of knowledge about pregnancy and healthcare amongst women. Many women are fearful about reporting cases of rape and others are not even aware they are pregnant and fail to seek out prenatal care. Those who are criminalized for abortions and carry out their sentences are often fearful of returning home to face discrimination from their families and communities. Additionally, many medical staff report pregnant women seeking urgent care to the authorities, for fear of losing their jobs and also being charged with abortion or homicide.
Unfortunately, Vasquez’s story is not unique. Just several months ago, a 19-year old woman was sentenced to 30 years in prison after suffering pregnancy complications that resulted in a stillbirth, after she was raped. In 2013, another story made international headlines after a woman with an autoimmune disorder was denied an abortion, even though the pregnancy was likely to kill both her and the child.
The El Salvador based non-profit organization, Alliance for Women’s Health and Life, reportedly documented an estimated 147 cases in which women were charged with the crime of having an abortion, between 2000 and 2014. Al Jazeera has also reported that 600 women have been criminally investigated since the law went into effect in 1998.
Vasquez herself is part of the ‘Las 17’ (The 17); a group of women who were convicted between 1999 and 2011 and are currently serving some of the highest (up to 40 years) sentences for homicide under El Salvador’s abortion laws. These women became part of a global campaign asking for their release via a presidential pardon, and although this was unsuccessful, a Supreme Court petition resulted in the release of three of the women. While this was seen as a victory for the women and many international and national rights groups that campaigned on their behalf, the recent decision to reject Vasquez’s appeal has been labelled “an outrageous step backward for justice” by human rights groups.
In placing the right of life of the unborn child over that of the mother, women are denied access to their own lives, bodies, health, and dignity – a clear human rights violation. Human rights, women’s rights, and reproductive rights groups have long fought in Latin America for women’s healthcare and reproductive rights, including access and information pertaining to these. Many rights groups have also criticized El Salvador’s strict abortion laws and called for change. Amnesty International’s Americas Director, Erika Guevera-Rosas has repeatedly said the law “goes against human rights and it has no place in the country or anywhere.”
Experts from the United Nations also called on El Salvador to decriminalize abortion for specific circumstances, as restricting “women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services and information is contrary to international human rights standards and violates the country’s international obligations.”
Facing mounting international condemnation and pressure from rights groups in El Salvador, a bill was introduced earlier this year, that would allow for abortion in certain circumstances, but this bill is currently still in committee and a proposed change will still take time. Meanwhile, Vasquez, Las 17, and countless other women will be forced to continue to serve their sentences, for crimes they did not commit or for actions which should not be considered criminal.
Currently, an estimated 25% of the total global population live in countries that have total or near total bans on abortion, and according to World Health Organization figures, this results in the deaths of an estimated 70,000 women annually from unsafe clandestine abortions – accounting for around 13% of all maternal deaths in the world.
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