News Abortion

Human Rights Experts Call on El Salvador to Review Harsh Abortion Laws

Jodi Jacobson

In May, the same group of experts urged the government of El Salvador to act swiftly to provide a safe abortion for Beatriz, the 22-year-old woman whose pregnancy was finally terminated via hysterotomy abortion earlier this week.

See all our coverage of Beatriz here.

Independent experts from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Tuesday called on the government of El Salvador to review its abortion laws and policies.

The experts include Anand Grover, special rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; Juan E. Méndez, special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; Kamala Chandrakirana, chairperson of the working group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice; and Rashida Manjoo, special rapporteur on violence against women, its causes, and consequences.

In May, the same group of experts urged the government of El Salvador to act swiftly to provide a safe abortion for Beatriz, the 22-year-old woman whose pregnancy was finally terminated with a hysterotomy earlier this week.

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A total abortion ban is in effect in El Salvador, and women are denied access to abortion care no matter the circumstances and no matter the threat to their lives or health, leading to cases like that of Beatriz, where an international campaign was launched to pressure the government to act.

“It is high time to reconsider the serious consequences on women’s rights of the abortion legislation and practice in El Salvador, and to afford the legal protection that all women in the country deserve,” the human rights experts said in a press release from the OHCHR. The experts also reiterated their call to ensure all persons, including women, the protection and full enjoyment of the right to life and to the highest attainable standard of health, in accordance with international human rights law.

As noted in the OHCHR release:

On 28 May, the Salvadorian Supreme Court ruled, by a vote decision of four to one, to deny a writ of rights, “amparo,” to Beatriz (name withdrawn to protect her identity) to undergo a therapeutic abortion, despite the probability that the foetus may die before or shortly after birth due to the brain condition, as proved to be the case this Monday 3 June. The judges voting for the ruling considered that the threat to her life was not actual, but eventual. Should health complications imminently place her life at risk, the Court opened the possibility for medical interventions.

The experts strongly condemned the ruling of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of El Salvador rejecting a young woman’s request to terminate a life-threatening pregnancy. While welcoming the decision on this case by high public officials, including the Minister of Health, that allowed an alternative procedure to be carried out, the experts expressed their hope that medical professionals who provided the required treatment will not be sanctioned.

“This Court ruling exposed the physical and mental health of Beatriz to serious risk, which could eventually threaten her life,” said Grover, Méndez, Chandrakirana, and Manjoo.

Moreover, they noted, “The court’s decision is in clear contravention of El Salvador’s human rights obligations, including article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognizes the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, and article 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women to which El Salvador is party.”

“An absolute ban on abortion, when the result is serious risk to the life and health of the woman, constitutes a violation of the State’s obligation to prevent torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” the experts said.

Many countries have moved in recent years to liberalize abortion laws. In El Salvador, no such steps have been taken.

Analysis Human Rights

El Salvador Bill Would Put Those Found Guilty of Abortion Behind Bars for 30 to 50 Years

Kathy Bougher

Under El Salvador’s current law, when women are accused of abortion, prosecutors can—but do not always—increase the charges to aggravated homicide, thereby increasing their prison sentence. This new bill, advocates say, would heighten the likelihood that those charged with abortion will spend decades behind bars.

Abortion has been illegal under all circumstances in El Salvador since 1997, with a penalty of two to eight years in prison. Now, the right-wing ARENA Party has introduced a bill that would increase that penalty to a prison sentence of 30 to 50 years—the same as aggravated homicide.

The bill also lengthens the prison time for physicians who perform abortions to 30 to 50 years and establishes jail terms—of one to three years and six months to two years, respectively—for persons who sell or publicize abortion-causing substances.

The bill’s major sponsor, Rep. Ricardo Andrés Velásquez Parker, explained in a television interview on July 11 that this was simply an administrative matter and “shouldn’t need any further discussion.”

Since the Salvadoran Constitution recognizes “the human being from the moment of conception,” he said, it “is necessary to align the Criminal Code with this principle, and substitute the current penalty for abortion, which is two to eight years in prison, with that of aggravated homicide.”

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The bill has yet to be discussed in the Salvadoran legislature; if it were to pass, it would still have to go to the president for his signature. It could also be referred to committee, and potentially left to die.

Under El Salvador’s current law, when women are accused of abortion, prosecutors can—but do not always—increase the charges to aggravated homicide, thereby increasing their prison sentence. This new bill, advocates say, would worsen the criminalization of women, continue to take away options, and heighten the likelihood that those charged with abortion will spend decades behind bars.

In recent years, local feminist groups have drawn attention to “Las 17 and More,” a group of Salvadoran women who have been incarcerated with prison terms of up to 40 years after obstetrical emergencies. In 2014, the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion) submitted requests for pardons for 17 of the women. Each case wound its way through the legislature and other branches of government; in the end, only one woman received a pardon. Earlier this year, however, a May 2016 court decision overturned the conviction of another one of the women, Maria Teresa Rivera, vacating her 40-year sentence.

Velásquez Parker noted in his July 11 interview that he had not reviewed any of those cases. To do so was not “within his purview” and those cases have been “subjective and philosophical,” he claimed. “I am dealing with Salvadoran constitutional law.”

During a protest outside of the legislature last Thursday, Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación, addressed Velásquez Parker directly, saying that his bill demonstrated an ignorance of the realities faced by women and girls in El Salvador and demanding its revocation.

“How is it possible that you do not know that last week the United Nations presented a report that shows that in our country a girl or an adolescent gives birth every 20 minutes? You should be obligated to know this. You get paid to know about this,” Herrera told him. Herrera was referring to the United Nations Population Fund and the Salvadoran Ministry of Health’s report, “Map of Pregnancies Among Girls and Adolescents in El Salvador 2015,” which also revealed that 30 percent of all births in the country were by girls ages 10 to 19.

“You say that you know nothing about women unjustly incarcerated, yet we presented to this legislature a group of requests for pardons. With what you earn, you as legislators were obligated to read and know about those,” Herrera continued, speaking about Las 17. “We are not going to discuss this proposal that you have. It is undiscussable. We demand that the ARENA party withdraw this proposed legislation.”

As part of its campaign of resistance to the proposed law, the Agrupación produced and distributed numerous videos with messages such as “They Don’t Represent Me,” which shows the names and faces of the 21 legislators who signed on to the ARENA proposal. Another video, subtitled in English, asks, “30 to 50 Years in Prison?

International groups have also joined in resisting the bill. In a pronouncement shared with legislators, the Agrupación, and the public, the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Women (CLADEM) reminded the Salvadoran government of it international commitments and obligations:

[The] United Nations has recognized on repeated occasions that the total criminalization of abortion is a form of torture, that abortion is a human right when carried out with certain assumptions, and it also recommends completely decriminalizing abortion in our region.

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights reiterated to the Salvadoran government its concern about the persistence of the total prohibition on abortion … [and] expressly requested that it revise its legislation.

The Committee established in March 2016 that the criminalization of abortion and any obstacles to access to abortion are discriminatory and constitute violations of women’s right to health. Given that El Salvador has ratified [the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights], the country has an obligation to comply with its provisions.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, described the proposal as “scandalous.” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director, emphasized in a statement on the organization’s website, “Parliamentarians in El Salvador are playing a very dangerous game with the lives of millions of women. Banning life-saving abortions in all circumstances is atrocious but seeking to raise jail terms for women who seek an abortion or those who provide support is simply despicable.”

“Instead of continuing to criminalize women, authorities in El Salvador must repeal the outdated anti-abortion law once and for all,” Guevara-Rosas continued.

In the United States, Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-CA) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) issued a press release on July 19 condemning the proposal in El Salvador. Rep. Torres wrote, “It is terrifying to consider that, if this law passed, a Salvadoran woman who has a miscarriage could go to prison for decades or a woman who is raped and decides to undergo an abortion could be jailed for longer than the man who raped her.”

ARENA’s bill follows a campaign from May orchestrated by the right-wing Fundación Sí a la Vida (Right to Life Foundation) of El Salvador, “El Derecho a la Vida No Se Debate,” or “The Right to Life Is Not Up for Debate,” featuring misleading photos of fetuses and promoting adoption as an alternative to abortion.

The Agrupacion countered with a series of ads and vignettes that have also been applied to the fight against the bill, “The Health and Life of Women Are Well Worth a Debate.”

bien vale un debate-la salud de las mujeres

Mariana Moisa, media coordinator for the Agrupación, told Rewire that the widespread reaction to Velásquez Parker’s proposal indicates some shift in public perception around reproductive rights in the country.

“The public image around abortion is changing. These kinds of ideas and proposals don’t go through the system as easily as they once did. It used to be that a person in power made a couple of phone calls and poof—it was taken care of. Now, people see that Velásquez Parker’s insistence that his proposal doesn’t need any debate is undemocratic. People know that women are in prison because of these laws, and the public is asking more questions,” Moisa said.

At this point, it’s not certain whether ARENA, in coalition with other parties, has the votes to pass the bill, but it is clearly within the realm of possibility. As Sara Garcia, coordinator of the Agrupación, told Rewire, “We know this misogynist proposal has generated serious anger and indignation, and we are working with other groups to pressure the legislature. More and more groups are participating with declarations, images, and videos and a clear call to withdraw the proposal. Stopping this proposed law is what is most important at this point. Then we also have to expose what happens in El Salvador with the criminalization of women.”

Even though there has been extensive exposure of what activists see as the grave problems with such a law, Garcia said, “The risk is still very real that it could pass.”

Analysis Human Rights

Sentenced to 40 Years After a Miscarriage, Maria Teresa Rivera May Have Chance to Go Free

Kathy Bougher

In El Salvador, Maria Teresa Rivera was convicted of aggravated homicide after experiencing an obstetrical emergency. She is scheduled to have a new day in court on May 11, when she will argue that there were judicial errors in her original trial.

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

In November 2011, Maria Teresa Rivera unexpectedly went into labor, giving birth in the latrine of her home. The birth was dangerous and unattended by any medical professionals; the fetus died. Like many women in El Salvador, where abortion is completely illegal, Rivera’s medical crisis led to her being charged with and convicted of aggravated homicide; she was sentenced in 2012 to 40 years in prison.

Rivera’s sentence is the most extreme of “Las 17,” a group of women who have been imprisoned after obstetrical emergencies. Now, she is scheduled to have a new day in court on May 11, when she will argue that there were judicial errors in her original trial. If the judge rules in her favor, she will be freed from prison. Advocates say that her case could influence public sentiment about other similar cases around the country.

With the support of the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, a Salvadoran feminist organization, Rivera has been fighting her case for several years, as reported earlier in Rewire. Along with the rest of Las 17, she requested a pardon from the Salvadoran government in 2014, but her request was denied.

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“Rivera represents the maximum will of the state to criminalize women in this country,” Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación, explained in an on-the-ground interview with Rewire. “Her sentence is the longest of any of the women with similar convictions; at 40 years, it is practically a life sentence.”

Fortunate To Be Alive

Maria Teresa Rivera, who shared her story on camera from prison in 2013, was a 28-year-old factory worker in 2011. She was living with her young son and his grandparents, her ex in-laws, in a very modest home in the outskirts of San Salvador. Rivera, the sole provider for the family, supplemented her factory work with house-cleaning in order to pay $13 a month to keep her son in a neighborhood Catholic school and purchase his asthma medication.

One night, according to court documents, Rivera said she awoke with intense thirst. But when she arose from her bed, she felt dizzy and then fainted. When she regained consciousness, she felt a strong urge to defecate and went to the latrine outside the house. As she sat in the latrine, she had intense cramping and “felt as if a little ball fell from her body.” Then she fainted and fell to the ground, where her mother-in-law found her in a pool of blood and called an ambulance to take her to the hospital. No one at the scene—family or paramedics—reported hearing any sounds of a baby, and no one realized she had given birth.

Rivera told doctors, attorneys, and others that did not know she was pregnant. She had been experiencing bleeding during the time of the pregnancy, which she interpreted as her menstrual cycle. Neither she nor any friends, relatives, or co-workers noted any physical changes that would indicate a pregnancy. She had also had two doctor visits for other complaints during those months, and no doctor had diagnosed her pregnancy. According to her own estimations, the last sexual contact she’d had that could have resulted in pregnancy had been six months earlier.

She arrived at the hospital in a severe state of shock from extreme blood loss, fortunate to still be alive. Doctors told her she had given birth and wanted to know where the baby was. Medical personnel contacted police, who went to her home to locate the deceased fetus. Rivera was detained by police at the hospital and has been imprisoned since that time.

Interrogation While Hospitalized

Multiple national and international organizations, including Amnesty International and the Center for Reproductive Rights, along with numerous medical, legal, human rights, and academic experts, have analyzed Rivera’s case in the years since her conviction. Harvard University sociologist Jocelyn Viterna and Salvadoran lawyer Jose Santos Guardado Bautista, for example, used parts of Rivera’s story and court documents in their 2014 analysis of systematic gender discrimination toward Las 17 within the judicial system.

Viterna and Bautista noted, for example, that the only witness testimony the judge considered credible was a supervisor from human resources at the factory where Rivera worked. Contrary to Rivera’s testimony, the supervisor testified that Rivera asked for time off for doctor appointments in January 2011 because she was pregnant. The judge refused to allow testimony from neighbors and friends who stated that they had never seen Rivera show any signs of pregnancy.

“Had Maria Teresa truly reported a pregnancy to her employer in January of 2011, she would have been 11 months pregnant when the birth occurred in November,” Viterna and Bautista observed. “This testimony is nothing short of preposterous. Nevertheless, this is the only witness testimony that the judge deems ‘credible’ in the final sentencing.” 

According to Viterna and Bautista’s report, “The judge admitted that there was no evidence that Maria Teresa had done anything to hurt her baby. The judge also admitted that there was no evidence of any motive for why she would want to kill her baby.” However, he still convicted her of aggravated homicide.

A 2015 resolution from the Salvadoran Attorney General for Human Rights (Procuradoría Para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos or PDDH in Spanish), which provided a formal opinion on violations of Rivera’s human rights, supports Viterna and Bautista’s findings.

The PDDH resolution observed that Rivera faced a slanted system even before she got to court:

At the First of May Hospital where Rivera was taken, the criminal investigation was prioritized over her right to health. She was subjected to interrogation when she was still in Intensive Care and without legal representation. In addition, the medical personnel did not seek information about her health history; they limited themselves to examining the birth canal, carrying out the extraction of the remaining placenta, and discharging her the following day, without attending to her overall health.

Both the PDDH and Viterna-Bautista reports noted that the judge relied on shoddy, unscientific evidence to convict Rivera. According to court records, the autopsy report for the fetus said its cause of death was “perinatal asphyxia.”

“It is perhaps worth reiterating that there were no signs of trauma on the [fetus], either externally or internally. It is perhaps worth reiterating that, despite the judge’s conclusion that the [fetus] died from suffocating within the latrine, the fetal lungs were clean with no sign of fecal matter or other materials inside them. Rather, the autopsy concluded that the [fetus] died of a medical condition—perinatal asphyxiation—that could have occurred before, during, or after the birth. Clearly, there is no evidence in these documents proving homicide,” Viterna and Bautista wrote. “Perinatal asphyxiation,” they said, “is a medical condition.”

Still, the judge interpreted the autopsy report to mean that Rivera had carried out an intentional criminal act. He also ignored the portion of the autopsy report stating that the umbilical cord could have been separated by its fall into the latrine. As quoted by the PDDH resolution, he wrote:

There is no doubt that the baby was born alive and was full-term and that the detached umbilical cord was cut by the mother …. This judge does not give credibility to what the accused says when she states she did not know she was pregnant …. She knew she was pregnant and that brought with it the obligation to care for and protect this young person she carried in her womb. In this sense, the fact that she went to the latrine, she did it with the intention of violently expelling [it] so that inside the latrine there would be no opportunity to breathe and in that way cause its death and then be able to say it was a [spontaneous] abortion.”

The judge also based his conviction, the PDDH resolution said, on the results of a DNA test showing the fetus was genetically related to Rivera.

“No evidence was introduced to show that Rivera had taken any intentional action to cause the death,” the PDDH resolution concluded.

Convicted by Patriarchy

Rivera’s legal representatives will likely use many of these inconsistencies as evidence for procedural judicial error in court this week. A favorable outcome in her trial can represent a significant step forward for women’s human rights, particularly sexual and reproductive rights in El Salvador. The country’s 1997 absolute ban on abortion, along with a 1998 constitutional modification to declare that life begins at conception, created the social, cultural, and legal environment that has justified courts sending women such as Rivera to prison for documented obstetrical emergencies, not even attempted abortion. According to the global organization Ipas, more than 600 women were incarcerated between 1998 and 2013 under the abortion law.

As the PDDH resolution noted, “in El Salvador, there exists a culture of the promotion of motherhood as the only form of self-realization for women, and the creation of the binomial ‘woman-mother,’ which locates women as instinctive and not rational. This imposes upon women [duties of] sacrifice, abnegation, and the prioritization of children over their own human conditions, behaviors that are not demanded in equal proportions from men.

“Women find themselves with a social expectation to comply with the role ‘woman-mother,’ even in the health system where women should be assured of conditions free of discrimination and obstetric violence,” it continued.

Advocates and researchers have argued that this sexist framework contributed to Rivera’s conviction. As Viterna and Bautista wrote, the trial judge claimed that Rivera “‘decided to carry out her criminal plan within the area of her household, looking for a moment during which there weren’t any other persons around to carry out this homicide,’ as if a woman has complete control over when, where and how her body will give birth.”

The PDDH concluded that “the judge convicted Rivera under subjective criteria with a heavily sexist ideology,” saying that Rivera’s rights to the presumption of innocence were overruled by such an ideology, unsupported by any medical or scientific evidence.

Rivera’s case, along with that of Carmen Guadalupe Vazquez (who was one of Las 17 granted a pardon in 2015 when the Salvadoran Supreme Court recognized judicial errors in her case), is representative of a consistent pattern toward this group of women that the Agrupación has been documenting.

“Correcting these judicial errors is very important, first of all for Rivera and her young son, so that she can go free, but also for all the other women in similar circumstances. It’s also necessary for those who work for justice in this country, particularly women’s reproductive justice, to see that the work has concrete results,” Herrera said.

Herrera hopes that a positive outcome will continue to make visible this pattern of judicial error and “move other cases [of Las 17] forward more rapidly and bring greater justice to the judicial system.”

According to IThe Agrupación is currently representing more than 25 women imprisoned with similar convictions: the original 17, two of whom received pardons, and others who have entered the system more recently.

“Maria Teresa’s story illustrates the systematic ways that women’s rights are violated: the right to health, the right to privacy in one’s life, the right to doctor-patient confidentiality, along with all the judicial procedural rights such as the presumption of innocence,” Herrera said in an interview with Rewire.

“The judicial system in El Salvador is the part of the state that has changed least since the signing of the 1992 peace accords” that ended the Salvadoran civil war, Herrera said. “Not just in how it deals with women, but how little sensitivity it demonstrates overall with regard to human rights.”

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