El Salvador’s total abortion ban sentences children and families to trauma and poverty

Press Release
November 30, 2015

El Salvador’s total abortion ban sentences children and families to trauma and poverty

El Salvador’s extreme anti-abortion law is having a devastating effect on the lives of scores of children whose mothers, having suffered miscarriages or other obstetric emergencies, are being held behind bars accused of having illegal abortions, said Amnesty International in a new report today.

Separated families, broken ties, reveals how children of women jailed under the absurd anti-abortion law are often left facing difficult financial circumstances and prevented from staying in touch with their mothers.

“Each time authorities in El Salvador unfairly lock up a woman for having a miscarriage or suffering pregnancy related complications, they are also condemning her children to a life of poverty and trauma,” said Astrid Valencia, Central America Researcher at Amnesty International.

“El Salvador´s ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach when it comes to women who suffer pregnancy-related complications has cost scores of lives, landed women in prison for up to 40 years and created an environment of absolute fear amongst doctors and patients. It is high time for El Salvador to abolish this outdated ban.”

At least 19 women are currently in jail, in the context of a total criminalization of abortion, convicted of serious offences such as homicide and sentenced to long prison terms on weak or inconclusive evidence. Most of them were their household’s main breadwinners. Since their incarceration, their extended families are responsible for providing and looking after their children, often in extremely difficult circumstances.
The lack of financial resources and the long distances between their homes and the prisons prevents many of the families from visiting their loved ones in prison. In some cases, women were not able to see their children for months.

Maria Teresa Rivera, a 32-year-old woman currently serving a 40 year prison sentence for “aggravated homicide” after having a miscarriage has only seen her ten-year-old son four times since she was jailed in 2011.

The boy lives with his grandmother several hours away from the prison and the journey is prohibitively expensive. Without Maria Teresa’s income and with no official support, her mother- in- law is also struggling to provide for her grandson.

Maria Teresa was arrested in a hospital after her mother-in-law found her in her bathroom almost unconscious and bleeding heavily. Staff at the hospital reported her to the police and accused her of having an abortion.

During the trial, one of Maria Teresa’s bosses testified against her saying she knew she was pregnant in January 2011. This would have made her 11 months pregnant by the time the miscarriage took place. The outrageous testimony was used as one of the pieces of evidence to convict her.

María Teresa´s young son is having a particularly difficult time dealing with his mother’s unfair detention.

“Isabel”, María Teresa´s mother in law, told Amnesty International of the traumatic visits to the prison: “The first time I took the child it was very hard. He cried a lot and I did too. He didn’t want to leave the prison. It was so hard that I stopped taking him for a while because it was tough for both of them.”

Similarly, Bertha (not her real name), spent nearly a year in jail also prosecuted for homicide after suffering a pregnancy-related complication. She was not able to see her 10- year-old son during half the time she was in prison.  

“Bertha” was arrested in July 2010 in a local hospital, where she had arrived heavily bleeding. She was charged with “aggravated homicide” although she did not know she was pregnant. “Bertha” did not meet her lawyer until the trial started. The penalty for the crime she was accused of could be as high as 50 years in jail. Bertha was found innocent almost a year after the process against her began, when lawyers from the local human rights group Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Therapeutic, Ethical and Eugenic Abortion provided new evidence on the case.

The trial and the time she was forced to spend in jail, however, left a profound mark on Berta’s life and her relatives.

She told Amnesty International that she is still traumatized by the experience and said she has not receive any kind of compensation or reparation measures.

“Even though several years have passed, the pain stays deep inside,” she said.

Talking about the impact of Bertha’s unfair incarceration on her family, her mother said: “To sleep, I couldn’t use the covers because during those days, when she was in the cells, I would start to think that she was suffering from the cold and so I wouldn’t cover myself so that I could experience her suffering. And now, I can’t use the covers even if I’m cold, so I know I’m still affected by it. Now, the pillow feels like a stone…I’m not the person I used to be.”

“Instead of sentencing children to this unbearable suffering, authorities in El Salvador should focus their energies in reviewing legislation that serves no purpose but to treat women as little more than ‘human vessels’,” said Astrid Valencia.

Following a change in the Penal Code in 1998, abortion in El Salvador has been banned in all circumstances – even when the pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or when the life of the woman is at risk. The change in the law has led to wrongful prosecutions and misapplication of criminal law where women are immediately assumed guilty. Women with few economic resources are particularly affected by the ban. 

[Amnesty International's Write for Rights campaign is highlighting the case of Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, who was sentenced to 30 years for homicide under El Salvador's abortion ban after suffering a still-birth.]