On Tuesday, the plaza in front of the Legislative Assembly in El Salvador blazed with sun and the energy of 200 women and men gathered to demand from the state an accounting of progress made on petitions to pardon 17 women unjustly imprisoned for up to 40 years for what amount to miscarriages, stillbirths, and other obstetric complications.
Various Salvadoran human rights groups submitted the petitions to the government on April 1. By law,
it must respond within three months. The law on pardons created a convoluted process, but feminists insist that the three branches of government comply, and quickly. The earliest steps have been completed, but the most fundamentalist-influenced body, the El Salvador Supreme Court of Justice, provides the next major challenge.
The chants shouted through the plaza reflected the larger issues at play:
If the 17 were female legislators?
They never would have been charged!
If the 17 were daughters of male legislators?
The pardons would have been granted by now!
Morena Herrera, president of La Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion), which organized
the event, explained:
In May of this year, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recommended to El Salvador that it revise its legislation, particularly around abortion as it affects imprisoned women. All three branches of the government must listen to this call.
If we are not able to resolve the problem of the 17 [women] at this level, we will go to the international human rights systems, including the United Nations and the Inter-American systems. Sometimes these are the only places where a citizen of this country can access justice.
She added, “Right now, there are five more women in the judicial process, and they could be added to the 17. Again, they are young and live in situations of poverty. There is no evidence that the women committed crimes,” said Herrera. “They are being convicted in a vicious judicial system with decisions based on prejudices.”
Father Antonio Rodriguez, parish priest for the family of Teresa, one of the 17 women, steered clear of the debate over the decriminalization of abortion, but offered common ground for compassion, reasonableness, and dialogue:
We know that Teresa’s baby died from prenatal hypoxia, which is a natural condition. We know that she did not provoke the death. The judicial system worked badly here.
This is a struggle for the liberation of 17 women unjustly imprisoned when they had spontaneous abortions. The state needs to have more humanizing processes to resolve these problems.
It is also a very macho position. If there were 17 women, there were 17 men. You could say that the couple should be jailed, but this isn’t about jailing people. It’s about liberating the 17 women and developing other processes in these situations. In this highly moralized country, we need to open up the debate.
Abortion is completely criminalized under all circumstances in the Salvadoran criminal code. What constitutes abortion in El Salvador? The law fails to define the term. The vague, prejudice-filled language commonly used clouds the charges
applied to convict women and adds to the social, legal, and medical confusion. The insufficiencies in the use of language also illustrate the meager knowledge of or lack of interest in the physical and biological processes that women experience in pregnancy and childbirth on the part of those who make life-altering decisions.
The common response when a woman who has recently given birth arrives hemorrhaging at a public clinic or hospital, and a deceased fetus or newborn is found, is for medical personnel to assume she intentionally terminated the pregnancy. They turn her over to police under accusations of “abortion,” which in popular usage is synonymous with “baby-killer,” “unnatural mother,” and “assassin.” There is not a practice of distinguishing between miscarriage or spontaneous abortion, a stillbirth, precipitated birth, an induced abortion, and aggravated homicide. Only the final two come into play, at least for poor young women in public health facilities. Defense attorneys are left to educate judges and prosecutors about the other possibilities.
The reality of the 17 is that not one case file contains any direct evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the woman. It appears that the women experienced miscarriages or stillbirths, precipitated births, or other complications. Although these terms all have clearly defined, universally accepted medical usages in Spanish, neither Salvadoran legislators, judges, nor physicians in public hospitals, nor the general public employ them—at least not with the 17.
Perhaps they fear using any word associated with abortion in other than a punitive context, since medical personnel who assist with an abortion also face criminal charges. Perhaps the lack of knowledge of women’s bodies or a sense of disgust and disdain, wrapped in misogyny, influences their willingness to look beyond the fact, uncontested by the accused women, that a woman who has recently given birth and a deceased fetus or newborn are in the same location at the same time. Given the lack of direct evidence, that physical proximity often becomes the judge’s justification for conviction and imprisonment.
Two of the 17 women received lengthy, unjust prison terms even though their babies did not die. The women gave birth under difficult circumstances outside of a hospital, and each baby suffered minor injuries that quickly healed. The mothers of those children, now young adolescents, have spent all of their children’s lives in prison with convictions for attempted homicide.
On the day after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, the lack of true access to contraceptives for young Salvadoran women rings even more ominous. Although feminist groups provide education around the use of contraceptives, what young women receive when they seek services in public health clinics is public humiliation. Young women reported in an on-the-ground conversation in El Salvador that in the waiting rooms of clinics they are interrogated: “What is a young, unmarried girl like you doing here asking for contraceptives? Does your mother know you are here?”
On this hot, muggy day, 200 women and men waited while Morena Herrera and Dennis Muñoz, attorney for the Agrupación, went inside the assembly building to meet with representatives who had two weeks’ notice of the visits. Not one legislator was available. Not one. The people who receive salaries to deal with pardons for citizens unjustly imprisoned were not available to discuss the process with their constituents. Herrera and Muñoz did learn that in another week the human rights committee will meet to decide if they will have a meeting with them. In the meantime, the chants outside continued:
Every hour, every day is a torture for the 17.
The voice of women is the voice of the people.