Commentary Abortion

Why Is El Salvador Letting a Woman Die?

The only reasonable explanation for the public stand-off is that Beatriz and other resource-poor women are politically expendable, and that crossing the Catholic Church is seen as worse than being hung out in the press as inhumane.

See all our coverage of Beatriz here.

Petition the El Salvadoran President and Supreme Court for Beatriz’s life here.

This past month, the world has been watching a 22-year-old pregnant woman in El Salvador die, little by little. I want to say it is like watching an accident happen in slow motion, but this situation is no accident. El Salvador’s government is deliberately denying lifesaving treatment to the woman, for no reason other than that she is pregnant.

At first I couldn’t understand why.

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I am not trying to be naive. I know that abortion is criminalized in all circumstances in El Salvador, and that the government therefore can hide behind the law to justify denying Beatriz (a pseudonym) medical treatment. I also know that El Salvador is a predominantly Catholic country, and that church officials are very active in the country’s political life, in particular on this issue.

But this same constellation of facts has not prevented select women in similar situations from getting access to the services they need in other countries in the region. Over the years, I have interviewed a small handful of women in Latin America who needed abortions to protect their health and lives. In most cases, after an initial negotiation with the public health ministry or prosecutor, the intervention went through on the dual condition that it got registered as “appendicitis” in the woman’s medical record, and that the women didn’t tell anyone about it. It didn’t much matter if abortion was legal or illegal in the countries where each case happened—the main motivation for allowing the intervention for the prosecutors and other public officials involved was to avoid negative publicity.

Because it doesn’t look good for El Salvador’s government officials. Sure, they are following the law. But they are also watching a woman die. And for what? The fetus Beatriz is carrying does not have a forebrain, and is likely to survive only scant hours after birth, if that. Human rights officials from the United Nations have publicly called out the situation as counter to El Salvador’s international obligations, and international media are portraying the government as “not moving a finger.”

The only reasonable explanation for the public stand-off is that Beatriz and other resource-poor women are politically expendable, and that crossing the Catholic Church is seen as worse than being hung out in the press as inhumane.

It wouldn’t be the first time poor women pay with their health and lives for politics. In Nicaragua, a mere ten days before the 2006 presidential election, the parliament voted to eliminate the possibility for legal abortion when a woman’s life is threatened by her pregnancy. Members of the Sandinista party were reportedly told to vote for the change, with the promise that it would be “fixed” after their candidate had won the election. And during the Pope’s 2007 visit to Brazil, then-President Lula publicly announced his opposition to abortion.

Let us be clear: the Catholic Church, and any other religious group or civil society organization, has the right to try and influence policies and further its agenda within the limits of the law. But governments owe everyone the same rights, regardless of faith, sex, family status, or ability to pay for votes or medical treatment. In the recent ruling, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights stated that governments cannot implement laws in a manner that reflects only one particular religion, as this would infringe on the rights of those who do not share that faith.

Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to the laws that criminalize abortion, even where the pregnant woman’s health or life is compromised. Not all visions of Catholicism require a woman to die for the sake of her pregnancy. And even if they did, it is Beatriz’s faith, wishes, and life the law must uphold.

I don’t understand what El Salvador’s government has to gain from watching this young woman die a preventable death. And I don’t understand how we can continue to allow this to happen.

News Law and Policy

Freed From a Post-Miscarriage Prison Sentence, El Salvador Woman Could Face More Time Behind Bars

Kathy Bougher

Maria Teresa Rivera was convicted of aggravated homicide in 2012 following an obstetrical complication during an unattended birth the previous year, which had resulted in the death of her fetus. On May 20, Judge Martín Rogel Zepeda overturned her conviction. Now, however, a legal threat could return her to prison.

Read more of our coverage on the campaign for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women imprisoned on abortion-related charges, here.

Two months ago, Maria Teresa Rivera was released from a 40-year prison sentence after spending more than four years behind bars. Rivera was convicted of aggravated homicide in 2012 following an obstetrical complication during an unattended birth the previous year, which had resulted in the death of her fetus. On May 20, Judge Martín Rogel Zepeda overturned her conviction. Now, however, a legal threat could return her to prison.

Rivera is part of the group known as “Las 17,” Salvadoran women who have been unjustly convicted and imprisoned based on El Salvador’s highly restrictive anti-abortion laws.

The government-employed prosecutor in Rivera’s case, María del Carmen Elias Campos, has appealed Rogel Zepeda’s decision overturning the original 2012 conviction and allowing Rivera to return to her now-11-year-old son. If the appeal is granted, Rogel Zepeda’s decision will be reviewed by a panel of justices. An unfavorable decision at that point could lead to a new trial.

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“I just don’t understand the prosecutor’s motivation for this appeal,” Rivera told Rewire in an interview. “We are very poor, and there is no one else but me to provide income for our family.”

According to Rivera’s attorney, Victor Hugo Mata, the government tends to require “preventive imprisonment” of the accused during the trial process, which could last months or years. This “preventive imprisonment” could begin as soon as the panel approves an appeal.

Although “the law clearly allows the prosecution to appeal,” Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, told Rewire in an interview, “This appeal that questions the decision of the court that granted [Rivera] her freedom is not looking for the truth.”

Herrera pointed out that the witness for the prosecution, a government forensic specialist who performed the fetal autopsy, determined that the cause of fetal death was perinatal asphyxia. “At the trial the prosecutor’s own witness told the prosecutor that he could not accuse a person of a crime in this case of perinatal asphyxia,” Herrera recounted.

“So, if her own witness spoke against [the prosecutor] and said she was not correct, it seems to me that this appeal … is proof that the prosecutor is not seeking either justice or the truth.”

Hugo Mata explained to Rewire that the prosecutor’s appeal asserts that Judge Rogel Zepeda “did not employ the legal standard of ‘sana crítica,’ or ‘solid legal judgment’ in evaluating the evidence presented.”

Hugo Mata vigorously contests the prosecutor’s allegation, noting that the judge’s written decision went into significant legal detail on all the issues raised at the hearing. He believes that a responsible court should see that “there was nothing capricious or contradictory in his highly detailed and legally well-founded decision.”

The three-judge panel has ten working days, or until approximately July 12, to render a decision as to whether to grant the initial appeal, although such deadlines are not always rigidly observed.  If the panel does not grant the appeal, the decision to overturn the conviction will stand.

The Agrupación, including Hugo Mata, believes that the appeals panel will be swayed by knowing that the case is receiving widespread attention. As part of a campaign to bring attention to the appeal process, the Agrupación has set up an email address to which supporters can send messages letting the court know that justice for Rivera is of national and international importance.

“What most worries me is leaving my son alone again,” Rivera told Rewire. “I was forced to abandon him for four and a half years, and he suffered greatly during that time. He is just beginning to recover now, but he never wants to be apart from me. He tells me every day, ‘Mommy, you’re never going to leave me again, are you?’ I had to tell him about this appeal, but I promised him everything would be all right.”

“I was abandoned by my mother at the age of five and grew up in orphanages,” Rivera concluded. “I don’t want the same life for my son.”

News Human Rights

Judge Overturns Homicide Conviction of El Salvador Woman Jailed After a Miscarriage

Kathy Bougher

Like dozens of other women in El Salvador, where abortion is completely illegal, Maria Teresa Rivera faced criminal charges in 2012 after experiencing obstetric complications.

Read more of our coverage on the campaign for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women imprisoned on abortion-related charges, here.

El Salvador trial court Judge Martín Rogel Zepeda on Friday overturned the 40-year prison sentence of Maria Teresa Rivera, who was convicted of aggravated homicide four years ago after experiencing a miscarriage in November 2011.

Rivera’s special session trial, which revisited her original 2012 conviction and sentence, began May 11. It resumed Friday after a weeklong recess to accommodate a key prosecution witness, a government forensic medicine specialist.

Like dozens of other women in El Salvador, where abortion is completely illegal, Rivera faced criminal charges after experiencing obstetric complications. In Rivera’s case, an unattended, unexpected labor resulted in the death of the fetus; an eventual autopsy report listed its cause of death as “perinatal asphyxia.” As previously reported by Rewire, Judge José Antonio Flores “interpreted the autopsy report to mean that Rivera had carried out an intentional criminal act,” ultimately convicting her of aggravated homicide.

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Witnesses for the May 11 defense included four physicians who helped clarify a major source of confusion throughout the legal process over the use of the term “perinatal asphyxia.” In medical terms, they explained, it is a condition—the inadequate intake of oxygen by the fetus—that is an unfortunate cause of death, but which can occur naturally during the birth process. The person giving birth does not cause the death.

According to those present at the trial, the government-employed forensic medicine specialist testified Friday that there was no certainty as to how the fetus died of perinatal asphyxia or evidence that Rivera had done anything intentional to cause the death. Alberto Romero from the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Depenalization del Aborto, the Salvadoran feminist organization that has supported Rivera since her charge and conviction, noted to Rewire via phone and email the “professionalism and clarity” of the specialist.

In a courtroom packed with Salvadoran and international supporters, Rivera addressed the judge directly as part of the closing statement of her attorney, Victor Hugo Mata. According to Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación, the room was absolutely silent as Rivera asked the judge to grant her freedom not just for herself, but also for her 10-year old son, whom she had not seen in three years. She showed the judge his photo and told him his name.

After a 30-minute recess, during which additional supporters outside on the streets chanted “freedom for Teresa,” the judge delivered his verdict: There was no evidence that Rivera had murdered her infant son, meaning the original verdict should be overturned.

As Rivera’s attorney Mata noted in the first part of the trial on May 11, the witness from forensic medicine who spoke Friday was also subpoenaed to appear at her original trial in 2012, but did not do so. Mata noted to the judge that if the specialist had testified at that trial, perhaps he would have been able to clarify the misconceptions about “perinatal asphyxia.”

If that had been the case, Romero said to Rewire after Friday’s trial, “perhaps Rivera would have been absolved at that time.”

According to Herrera, there are still about 25 women imprisoned in El Salvador under similar circumstances to Rivera’s. “Most of the imprisoned women experienced judicial errors similar to those that occurred in Maria’s Teresa trial,” she said.

We continue to work to change those medical and legal protocols for women already charged,” she told Rewire. However, she noted, “We also need to work to change the anti-abortion laws that criminalize abortion and also obstetric emergencies, and thereby set off the events that cause women to be unjustly imprisoned.”

After four years behind bars, Rivera left the courthouse on Friday a free woman. “Thanks so much to everyone who has helped me,” she told Rewire by phone. “What’s most important is that I’ve hugged my son again.”