Mothers Jailed For 40 Years In El Salvador After Stillbirth

A change in El Salvador’s legislation in 1998 placed a ban on abortion even after rape and incest, when a woman’s health was at risk, and in cases of fatal foetal impairment. This law has resulted in the wrongful conviction of El Salvadorian women for murder after suffering a miscarriage or stillbirth. El Salvador belongs to a group of only five countries where all cases of abortion are criminalized.

Amnesty International said that women who have a stillbirth in El Salvador are accused of having an abortion. The penalty for abortion ranges from two to eight years of imprisonment. Some women are charged with aggravated homicide after losing their baby and are sentenced up to 50 years in prison. A woman is charged with abortion if she is suspected of ending her pregnancy within the first 12 weeks of gestation, and charged with aggravated homicide thereafter. The El Salvador Citizens’ Coalition for the Decriminalization of Abortion said that 129 women were convicted of abortion-related crimes between 2000 and 2011, equating to approximately 11 women each year. Staggeringly, 17 El Salvadorian women were sentenced to 40 years in prison after they reported a miscarriage or stillbirth between 1999 and 2011. Although official statistics are unavailable, Amnesty International estimates that “at least five more women currently await sentencing on similar pregnancy-related charges in the country.”

Attitudes may be changing in the country after the Citizens Association for the Decriminalization of Abortion petitioned the Supreme Court to free 17 women, resulting in the overturning of three convictions. The Federation of Feminist Organizations said that many women arrive at public health facilities bleeding and seeking help, but medical staff contact the police fearing they will be charged themselves instead of providing medical care. The Representative for Central America at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Alberto Brunori, said, “When a woman goes to the doctor because she has aborted naturally, the presumption of guilt automatically reigns instead of the presumption of innocence.”

Earlier in the year, a bill was introduced in El Salvadorian parliament to change the law to allow women an abortion in some circumstances, such as after being raped or when a woman’s health is at risk. Yet, after several months, the proposed legislation is still in committee. This legislation must be passed for El Salvadorian women to access necessary healthcare without the fear that they will be prosecuted and denied help. Passing this legislation will ensure that women who have a miscarriage or a stillbirth are not charged with abortion or aggravated homicide for a tragedy they had no control over. Although attitudes are beginning to change regarding abortion in El Salvador, women’s rights have a long way to go. The Government must recognize that women are not merely vessels for carrying a baby, but must have access to the same rights as their male counterparts. Religious leaders must advocate for the rights of women; this way, religion cannot be an excuse for denying women access to healthcare and punishing them for losing their baby.

Olivia Reed

Olivia studies a Bachelor of Communication (Journalism) at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia.