Analysis Abortion

No Longer a Front-Page Story, ‘Beatriz’ Continues to Struggle From Denial of Abortion Care

Kathy Bougher

The story of “Beatriz,” the 22-year-old woman caught in the firestorm of the abortion conflict in El Salvador, no longer appears on the front pages of the country’s newspapers nor on TV nightly news. Beatriz, however, continues to struggle daily.

The story of “Beatriz,” the 22-year-old woman caught in the firestorm of the abortion conflict in El Salvador, no longer appears on the front pages of the country’s newspapers nor on TV nightly news. Beatriz, however, struggles daily with poor health resulting from denial of abortion care, while trying to build a life for herself and her 20-month-old son.

Beatriz’s story garnered international coverage in April when she was denied an abortion by the government of El Salvador, even though her fetus was not viable and her doctors had determined continuing the pregnancy was putting her life in grave danger. In El Salvador, abortion is illegal even when the mother’s life is in danger, a policy supported by both the current government, the powerful Catholic bishops of El Salvador, and equally powerful anti-choice groups allied with ultra-conservative Catholic theology. Despite the law, in early April 2013 doctors advised Beatriz of the dire consequences of continuing her pregnancy, and she requested an abortion. Under Salvadoran law, a woman who has an abortion and anyone who assists in providing one both face prison terms of up to 50 years. Still, Beatriz persevered in pressing her case.

With the support of the Salvadoran organization, Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto Terapéutico, Ético y Eugenésico (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Therapeutic, Ethical or Eugenic Abortion), Beatriz appealed to the Salvadoran Supreme Court. The court delayed its response for several weeks—during which time Beatriz’s health continued to decline—and then refused to take any effective action. Finally, the InterAmerican Human Rights Court, to which Beatriz had also appealed, ordered the Salvadoran government to act, and her doctors performed the abortion. Though her life was saved in the short term, Beatriz’s health was severely impaired by weeks of needless suffering and the denial of swift treatment at an earlier stage in her pregnancy. Moreover, anti-choice groups and even the judges from the Salvadoran Supreme Court continued to argue that Beatriz was never in any real danger and was being manipulated by feminist groups.

Compounding the emotional stress during her hospitalization, anti-choice groups managed to contact Beatriz by phone to attempt to convince her to change her mind about requesting an abortion. They offered to move her from the under-funded and overcrowded public maternity hospital to an exclusive private hospital, which they described as equivalent to a five–star hotel, and to take care of all her expenses. However, Beatriz chose to stay in the public hospital and continue her alliance with the Agrupación. In an on-the-ground interview with Rewire in El Salvador, Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación, said “the most disgusting and inhumane” episode occurred when the anti-choice group brought Beatriz a basket of baby clothes, including small knitted caps to cover the head of the anencephalic fetus she was carrying.

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Beatriz’s fight to save her own life provided the citizens of El Salvador a real-time view of the actual meaning and costs of a law about which a large share of the population previously had little awareness.

Three months after the abortion, Beatriz is holding her own for the moment. However, her future, both short- and long-term, remains quite uncertain because of permanent health problems, including aggravated lupus and kidney disease. She is home with her family, most importantly with her son, as she figures out options for medical treatments, employment possibilities, the needs of her son, and her living situation. The torture and humiliation of fighting for a medically indicated abortion, the stress of her illnesses, and the pain of the brief life and inevitable death of the anencephalic baby she had wanted seriously compromised her already fragile health.

The Agrupación, the Colectiva Feminista and other feminist groups maintain close contact with Beatriz and provide regular support. Morena Herrera explained in a phone interview with Rewire that the organization is talking with the Ministry of Health to ensure that the government complies with the follow-up treatment Beatriz was assured she would receive. Her lupus symptoms are worsening and the condition of her kidneys still has not been determined. Even with medication, she suffers constant pain. The Agrupación is working to get her to get more in-depth, comprehensive medical tests in order to have a clear diagnosis and treatment plan. They have also helped her obtain psychological counseling.

But, these efforts cannot reverse the damage done by to her body and her health by a pregnancy that should have been terminated much earlier.

In a conversation with Rewire on the ground in El Salvador, Beatriz recalled the two months she spent in the hospital awaiting the procedure she requested to save her life:

The time in the hospital was really difficult, and I suffered a lot. From the pregnancy the lupus gave me spots and rashes all over my body as if it were burned. I never slept well. I was stressed the whole time. All I could think about was my son without me. I just wanted to be with him.

During her hospital stay the Salvadoran Supreme Court summoned her to testify about her request for an abortion. “I’m not sure that they believed me. The Institute of Legal Medicine said nothing serious was going to happen to me. I felt really bad when they said that. Only I know how I feel in my body, not them.”

Beatriz currently lives with family members in an isolated rural area of the country located about a three-hour drive from San Salvador. A section of that journey is over barely passable unpaved roads. The region provides almost no opportunities for employment. She attempts to generate at least a minimal income through a small store she set up on shelves in the front of her house where she sells a few basic goods to her neighbors. Feminist groups helped her with business skills and continue to provide her with a small amount of funding, business advice and moral support. In addition, she devotes much of her attention to her 20-month old son who had a difficult premature birth and then a lengthy separation from his mother. He requires medical attention to address developmental delays in walking and talking. She would like to study cosmetology, but poor health and the need for frequent medical appointments for herself and her son prevent her from doing so. Appointments are complicated to schedule because of the long distances and the limited bus transportation to the city. She is also considering moving to another rural community where other family members live.

As a woman who is young, poor, and rural, Beatriz fits the profile of women negatively affected by the country’s draconian abortion laws. At a huge cost to her physical and emotional health, and almost her life, she fought to have the life-saving abortion she requested and deserved.

How does she see the Salvadoran law that could have killed her? “I don’t think they should let happen to any other woman what happened to me. When a woman is extremely sick and is pregnant, they should interrupt the pregnancy, so that nothing bad happens like what happened to me.”

Her struggle to save her life placed the question of the abortion squarely on the public agenda in El Salvador. Abortion has been transformed from a word that was almost never spoken aloud to a subject of intense public concern and discussion. This dramatic change has energized feminists, youth groups, university students, human rights organizers, and inclusive religious groups who want to keep the momentum alive. The Agrupación continues its ongoing commitment to organizing legal cases to secure the release of women imprisoned with abortion-related convictions, as well as its long-term goal of legislative change to decriminalize abortion. But the road ahead remains steep, arduous, and uncertain, like the one Beatriz continues to climb.

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.”

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.”