Tragedy in El Salvador: Church-Supported Laws Lead to Death of Mother Jailed After Miscarriage


El Salvador today is not a good place to be a woman. In 1998, the government passed a new Penal Code creating a complete ban on abortion. No exceptions. This was a shift from an earlier law which allowed abortions in cases of threats to the health or life of the woman, as well as for rape, incest, or severe fetal abnormality. Passage of the ban made El Salvador one of only five countries in Latin America–including Nicaragua, Honduras, Dominican Republic, and Chile–that maintain an absolute ban abortion.

And now women’s groups are fighting it. Today, the Center for Reproductive Rights joined with local Salvadoran organization Colectiva de Mujeres para el Desarrollo Local to file a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights protesting the current law and based on the case of a woman who died in prison after being jailed for a miscarriage.

Reading the words of the ban underscores just how draconian it is. Chapter II of El Salvador’s reformed Penal Code, dealing with “Crimes Against the Life of Human Beings in the First Stages of Development,” penalizes women who induce their own abortions; give their consent to someone else to induce an abortion; doctors, pharmacists or other health care workers who practice abortions; persons who encourage a woman to have an abortion or provide the financial means to obtain an abortion; and persons who unintentionally cause an abortion. According to an October 2010 shadow report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Report on Violations of Women’s Human Rights Due to the Complete Criminalization of Abortion:

El Salvador’s restrictive abortion laws were further solidified in 1999 with a constitutional amendment defining a human being “from the moment of conception.

For good measure, and to make sure these laws were strictly enforced against apparently dangerous women trying desperately to control their lives, the country established a policing apparatus to prosecute, investigate and denounce any suspicious activities in public hospitals and other places in the country.

El Salvador’s ultra-conservative Catholic Church hierarchy played a leading role in passing the new law banning abortion under any circumstance. A human rights analysis conducted in the years after the new penal code was put in place underscores how the shift in the Church’s leadership and philosophy, from the seventies when it focused on social justice and organizing peasants to the nineties, when things changed dramatically, contributed heavily to passage of the ban. According to the analysis, the Roman Catholic Church and right-wing Catholic groups in countries like El Salvador… “exert direct influence on regulatory changes that limit the exercise of women’s rights, counter to international agreements.”

The Catholic Church’s role as a protector of social justice and human rights, and its impact on social issues changed… with the appointment of the new Archbishop of San Salvador. He is a member of the right-wing Opus Dei and has the support of the ruling class as well as close ties with right-wing nongovernmental organizations. This change has influenced the stance of both the Church and the government with regard to social issues that affect women in particular.

In 1997, the Church and right-wing Catholic groups joined with others in a full-on campaign against abortion, mobilizing students from Catholic schools, campaigning through the media and using other means of pushing for the passage of the new penal code and the complete ban until it was passed.

Since its passage, according to CRR, “the ban has resulted in tragic and often fatal consequences” for the women living in the country, resulting in “the arbitrary imprisonment of women suffering from miscarriages and complications in their pregnancies.” 

Such was the case of “Manuela” (a pseudonym). According to CRR, Manuela was a 33-year-old Salvadoran mother of two who was  convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison after suffering an apparent miscarriage and severe complications giving birth. No trial, no appeal. Thirty years.

From the moment Manuela arrived at the hospital seeking emergency health  care, slipping in and out of consciousness and hemorrhaging, doctors treated her as if she had attempted an abortion and immediately called the police. She was shackled to her hospital bed and accused of murder.

Manuela  was sentenced to 30 years in prison without ever having a chance to  meet with her lawyer, without an opportunity to speak in her own defense, and without the right to appeal the decision. Shockingly, the  judge overseeing her case said that “her maternal instinct should have  prevailed” and “she should have protected her child.”

After several months in prison, it was discovered that the visible tumors Manuela had on her neck for which she sought medical care several times without being accurately diagnosed, was advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a  disease that likely lead to the severe obstetric emergency she suffered.

“Tragically,” continues CRR, “Manuela did not receive the appropriate treatment for her disease and died in prison in 2010, leaving behind her two young children.”

Her illness could have been caught earlier if she had received adequate  medical attention when she consulted about her tumors in years prior, and if medical officials treating her during her emergency paid any  attention to her condition, rather than focusing on reporting her to  authorities.

This case exhibits all the most draconian aspects of already-draconian anti-choice laws, many of which are in now in force in various parts of the United States. Profound and fundamental mistrust of women. Abusive laws that remove from women any choice in whether, when, with whom, and under what life or health circumstances to have a child or another child. Policing of maternity wards. The criminalization and arrest of women who have had miscarriages. Disregard for the right to life of living, breathing women.

“El  Salvador’s laws have turned emergency rooms into crime scenes,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of CRR, “forcing pregnant women to live under a dark cloud of suspicion. The  international community must come together to demand an end to this  cruel treatment of women and make a commitment to safeguard fundamental  reproductive rights.”  Like Manuela, many women in El Salvador who miscarry or experience emergency obstetric complications are charged with aggravated murder, for which they can be  imprisoned for up to 50 years, and subsequently spend decades behind bars.

Is this just? Is this what is meant by “right to life?”

The legal campaign by CRR and Colectiva de Mujeres marks the first time an international judicial body will hear the case of a woman imprisoned for seeking medical care due to  obstetric emergencies, as a result of a total abortion ban. The case  argues that El Salvador’s absolute ban on abortion violates a number of  human rights, including the right to life, right to personal integrity  and liberty, right to humane treatment, and the right to a fair trial and judicial protection.

“Salvadoran  women have been unjustly persecuted by their government for far too  long,” said Mónica Arango, CRR’s regional director for Latin America and  the Caribbean. “We are bringing Manuela’s case before an international  human rights body so women won’t suffer the same tragic fate, and El  Salvador can finally be held accountable.”

“Liberalizing  restrictive abortion laws, like El Salvador’s, is essential to saving the lives and protecting the health of millions of women across the  globe every year,” said Northup. “Study after study has shown there are no positive outcomes to banning abortion outright.”

A recent study by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute  underscores what has been shown before: Restrictive abortion laws are not associated  with lower rates of abortion. According to the study, the 2008 abortion rate in Latin America—a region where abortion is highly restricted in almost all countries—was 32 per 1,000 women of childbearing age, while in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad  grounds, the rate is just 12 per 1,000.

Apart from the very real, though largely invisible tragedies of women like Manuela imprisoned for miscarriage or those who may have been arrested for thwarting a law that assigns absolutely no value to their lives, there is another critical issue here as well. 

The proliferation of abortion bans and other such laws at the state level in the United States, the efforts to eliminate access to contraception for a large share of women in this country, the heavy involvement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in laws and policies governing women’s rights, the increasing degree of degrading speech about women used by politicians together underscores just how much closer we are  every day to a theocratic/right wing state like El Salvador. How far will we let things slide before the lives and health of ourselves and our daughters mean nothing?  And how long will we stand by while the “religious right” abuses women, whether they live here or in El Salvador?

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