Women in El Salvador are being sent to prison for miscarrying

The country's absolute ban on abortion also criminalizes women who suffer natural obstetric complications

Published October 18, 2013 2:28PM (EDT)

Reproductive rights advocates protest El Salvador's absolute ban on abortion       (Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto)
Reproductive rights advocates protest El Salvador's absolute ban on abortion (Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto)

After seeking emergency medical attention for the sudden onset of abdominal cramps and heavy bleeding, a 19-year-old woman in Puerto El Triunfo, El Salvador, learned she had miscarried before she knew she was pregnant.

As reported by BBC News' Nina Lakhani, Glenda Xiomara Cruz had been getting regular periods and a pregnancy test from a few months earlier had been negative, but none of this stopped the hospital from reporting her to the police under the suspicion of inducing an abortion -- a crime in El Salvador.

Xiomara underwent two emergency operations and spent three weeks in the hospital before she was moved to Ilopango women's prison, where was sentenced to serve 10 years for the loss of the fetus.

She isn't the first woman in El Salvador to be sent to prison for a sudden miscarriage.

Xiomara's lawyer, Dennis Munoz Estanley, says the conservative legal system in the country is predisposed to assume women like Xiomara are guilty. "She is yet another innocent victim of our unjust and discriminatory legal system, which jails poor, young women who suffer obstetric complications for murder on the most flimsy evidence," he told the BBC.

According to data from the Citizens' Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, more than 200 women in El Salvador were reported to the police for miscarriages between 2000 and 2011. Of these women, 129 were prosecuted and 49 were convicted, some receiving sentences of up to 50 years.

One of these women, Cristina Quintanilla, was sentenced to three years in prison after miscarrying. Unlike Xiomara, who didn't know she was pregnant, Quintanilla and her husband were eagerly awaiting their second child when she unexpectedly miscarried in her seventh month.

"The medical reports couldn't explain why the baby died, but the prosecutor made me out to be a criminal who could have saved my baby even though I had passed out in pain," she says.

"I will never understand why they did this to me, I lost four years of my life and still don't know why I lost my baby."

Women who are imprisoned as a result of unexpected miscarriages aren't the only victims of the country's absolute ban on abortion.

The law was fiercely debated in the country back in April, when a critically ill woman named Beatriz, pregnant with a nonviable anencephalic fetus, was denied a therapeutic abortion by the Salvadorian Supreme Court.

After debating Beatriz’s request for a therapeutic abortion -- which was supported by her doctors, the Salvadoran health ministry and international human rights groups -- for seven weeks, the court rejected her petition, but allowed that doctors “could proceed with interventions” if Beatriz’s health continued to deteriorate due to her kidney failure and lupus.

Shortly after the ruling, the health ministry ordered Beatriz’s doctors to perform a cesarean, a legal compromise allowing the state to uphold its restriction on all abortion while enabling doctors to terminate Beatriz’s nonviable pregnancy and save her life.

The stories of women like Xiomara, Quintanilla and Beatriz have ignited fierce debate within the country, but the Salvadoran government has made no attempt to repeal or relax the law, leaving women's lives and safety on the line.

"Women and girls end up in prison for being unwilling, or simply tragically unable, to carry the pregnancy to term," Esther Major, Amnesty International's El Salvador expert, told the BBC. "It makes seeking hospital treatment for complications during pregnancy, including a miscarriage, a dangerous lottery."

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abortion Miscarriage Pregnancy Reproductive Health Reproductive Rights Women's Rights