Commentary Human Rights

Seeking Justice for 17 Salvadoran Women Imprisoned for Miscarriage and Stillbirth

Kathy Bougher

A Salvadoran feminist organization has launched an international campaign to pressure the government to pardon and free 17 women who suffered complications of pregnancy leading to miscarriage and stillbirth, and who have been imprisoned under the country's total abortion ban.

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

Teresa didn’t realize she was pregnant in November 2011 until she gave birth in a latrine, and the baby died. She was 29 years old, lived in a working-class neighborhood of metropolitan San Salvador in El Salvador, worked in a factory, and cared for her young son, who suffers from severe bronchial asthma. She hemorrhaged heavily, and her family called the Salvadoran Red Cross, which transported her to a public hospital. Medical personnel reported her to police, accusing her of provoking an abortion. She was taken directly from the hospital to jail, where she has been ever since. Prosecutors upgraded the abortion charges to aggravated homicide, and she is now serving a 40-year sentence.

The Salvadoran feminist organization La Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion) has launched a campaign petitioning the Salvadoran government to grant pardons and free 17 women imprisoned under such circumstances, including Teresa. These 17 women have no other legal recourse, having exhausted all other alternatives under Salvadoran law. (Rewire and the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion have joined with the Citizen Group in the international campaign. A petition can be found here in English and Spanish.)

At Teresa’s trial, prosecutors failed to present evidence or testimony of any action on her part that led to the death. In addition, numerous inconsistencies surfaced in the case against her. The physician who treated her stated, “It cannot be determined if this was a normal-term birth or an abortion.” The autopsy stated that the cause of death was perinatal asphyxiation. The judge interpreted this diagnosis to mean a death provoked by aggression, but according to the Citizen Group, the judge’s interpretation does not meet medical standards. Perinatal asphyxiation can have diverse natural causes in the moment before or after birth.

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The court and Teresa’s public defender overlooked the fact that the court accepted testimony that Teresa was pregnant in January 2011, but that the obstetrical complications occurred in November 2011. It appears that the judge considers the pregnancy to have lasted 11 months.

Even with these inconsistencies, the lack of evidence of wrongdoing, and the lack of a presumption of innocence, she was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Her chronically ill son is under the care of his elderly paternal grandmother.

Abortion has been illegal under all circumstances in El Salvador since 1997, when lawmakers reformed the nation’s law to remove the three previously existing exceptions that applied in cases of rape or incest, if the mother’s life is in danger, or if the fetus is not viable outside the uterus. They established a penalty of two to eight years in prison. Additionally, in 1998 the El Salvador legislature approved a constitutional amendment declaring that life begins at conception. That combination allows prosecutors to convert many abortion charges to aggravated homicide, which carries a sentence of 30-to-50 years.

In reality, Salvadoran courts imprison poor women for miscarriages, stillbirths, and other obstetrical complications. Prosecutors and judges utilize the law to cast a wide net and send women to prison without respect for their rights to due process, the presumption of innocence, a standard of reasonable doubt, or an effective legal defense. Judges hand down convictions and lengthy sentences even when prosecutors fail to present evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of the accused woman.

The pathway to prison commonly begins when a woman experiences a miscarriage or other complication away from a medical facility. She seeks help at a public health clinic or hospital, usually arriving hemorrhaging and unconscious. Medical personnel call police and accuse the woman of abortion. Police arrest the woman and transport her from the hospital to jail. Frequently women are interrogated by police at the hospital before fully recovering from the effects of anesthesia and before gaining any understanding of what has happened to them.

As Morena Herrera, president of the Citizen Group, emphasized in an on-the-ground interview in March, “This only occurs at public hospitals. No private hospital, not one, appears in the documents showing where cases originate. Women with the economic means can find appropriate medical care at private medical facilities within the country, or they can travel outside the country.”

The Citizen Group published a research report called Del Hospital a la Cárcel (From the Hospital to the Jail) in 2013, which included the socio-economic profile of women charged with abortion-related crimes. Sixty-eight percent are between 18 and 25 years old. But what is particularly alarming is that 25 percent are between 18 and 20 years old. Twenty-seven percent are illiterate or have no more than a third-grade education. Fifty-two percent have no income, while the rest have minimum-wage jobs. The report also found that 74 percent of the women confront their pregnancies alone, without any involvement from the male involved in the pregnancy. The report notes that age, poverty, and low educational levels appear to be common factors among women who were charged with a crime.

Another of the 17 imprisoned women, Veronica, has served 11 years of a 30-year sentence. At age 19, she was pregnant as a result of a rape, single, and without any formal education. She was employed as a domestic worker in her rural hamlet when she suffered an obstetrical complication and lost her fetus. Her employers took her to a public hospital and reported her to police, who accused her of the crime of abortion. Prosecutors later upgraded the charges to aggravated homicide. The court found her guilty and sentenced her to 30 years in prison.

At her trial, the prosecution failed to present witnesses or evidence to explain how the events occurred. The court itself recognized in its sentencing statement that there was no direct evidence on which to convict Veronica, stating, “With respect to who is responsible for perpetrating the crime, the court judges that there is no direct evidence, but there do exist demonstrated facts that when put together can lead to a conclusion.”

The Citizen Group asserts that the court used speculation based on prejudices, such as those expressed in another section of the sentencing statement: “The motives that the accused had are unknown, although it can be deduced that the motivation was to avoid social reproach.”

The various medical and forensic reports disagreed about the gestational age of Veronica’s fetus, with estimates ranging from 16 to 36 weeks. Veronica’s public defender did not defend her against these inconsistencies and biases and did not assert her right to a presumption of innocence. Nevertheless, unless Veronica receives a pardon, she will spend 19 more years in prison.

On April 1, the Citizen Group filed documents with the Salvadoran National Legislature to petition the government to grant pardons to these 17 women who are serving sentences of 12 to 40 years. Under the Special Law for Appeals of Grace, each pardon must be reviewed and approved by each of the three branches of government. The process begins in the legislature, and then goes to the judicial branch. Finally, the president must ratify the decisions. By law, the three branches of government should complete the process within three months, by July 1, but responses to previous pardons, even when favorable, have taken much longer.

In the petitions, the Citizen Group asserts that the errors and violations of human rights committed by the Salvadoran state can be repaired by granting pardons. Herrera pointed out that all the women “had an inadequate defense” and that the convictions “are not based on direct evidence, but rather on the interpretations of judges and in many cases exculpatory evidence was not even taken into account.” Therefore, “[t]his is violence on the part of the Salvadoran State against the women.”

In a recent radio interview, Herrera explained that the Citizen Group had reviewed the court records for every one of the 17 women: “No court shows where direct proof of wrongdoing on the part of the woman was presented.”

The Citizen Group’s campaign seeks to gain support from the Salvadoran and international public by educating them about the lives of the imprisoned women and the impact of the application of the laws. As the group launches its national campaign, Una Flor por las 17, it has produced radio spots designed to raise awareness about the structural injustices involved. One spot explains, “Because of the structural conditions in which they live, poor women are condemned from the beginning to birth complications.”

Another spot addresses a common societal belief that has been expressed in some of the women’s trials that “real” mothers do everything possible to protect and save their children: “When we know the women and the economic, social, and emotional circumstances under which they give birth, we understand that they are not unnatural mothers or assassins. They are not better or worse than other Salvadoran women. We are all ‘the 17.’”

Culture & Conversation Abortion

With Buffer Zones and Decline of ‘Rescues’ Came Anti-Choice Legal Boom, Book Argues

Eleanor J. Bader

University of Denver's Joshua Wilson argues that prosecutions of abortion-clinic protesters and the decline of "rescue" groups in the 1980s and 1990s boosted conservative anti-abortion legal activism nationwide.

There is nothing startling or even new in University of Denver Professor Joshua C. Wilson’s The New States of Abortion Politics (Stanford University Press). But the concise volume—just 99 pages of text—pulls together several recent trends among abortion opponents and offers a clear assessment of where that movement is going.

As Wilson sees it, anti-choice activists have moved from the streets, sidewalks, and driveways surrounding clinics to the courts. This, he argues, represents not only a change of agitational location but also a strategic shift. Like many other scholars and advocates, Wilson interprets this as a move away from pushing for the complete reversal of Roe v. Wade and toward a more incremental, state-by-state winnowing of access to reproductive health care. Furthermore, he points out that it is no coincidence that this maneuver took root in the country’s most socially conservative regions—the South and Midwest—before expanding outward.

Wilson credits two factors with provoking this metamorphosis. The first was congressional passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1994, legislation that imposed penalties on protesters who blocked patients and staff from entering or leaving reproductive health facilities. FACE led to the establishment of protest-free buffer zones at freestanding clinics, something anti-choicers saw as an infringement on their right to speak freely.

Not surprisingly, reproductive rights activists—especially those who became active in the 1980s and early 1990s as a response to blockades, butyric acid attacks, and various forms of property damage at abortion clinics—saw the zones as imperative. In their experiences, buffer zones were the only way to ensure that patients and staff could enter or leave a facility without being harassed or menaced.

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The second factor, Wilson writes, involved the reduced ranks of the so-called “rescue” movement, a fundamentalist effort led by the Lambs of Christ, Operation Rescue, Operation Save America, and Priests for Life. While these groups are former shadows of themselves, the end of the rescue era did not end anti-choice activism. Clinics continue to be picketed, and clinicians are still menaced. In fact, local protesters and groups such as 40 Days for Life and the Center for Medical Progress (which has exclusively targeted Planned Parenthood) negatively affect access to care. Unfortunately, Wilson does not tackle these updated forms of harassment and intimidation—or mention that some of the same players are involved, albeit in different roles.

Instead, he argues the two threads—FACE and the demise of most large-scale clinic protests—are thoroughly intertwined. Wilson accurately reports that the rescue movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted in hundreds of arrests as well as fines and jail sentences for clinic blockaders. This, he writes, opened the door to right-wing Christian attorneys eager to make a name for themselves by representing arrested and incarcerated activists.

But the lawyers’ efforts did not stop there. Instead, they set their sights on FACE and challenged the statute on First Amendment grounds. As Wilson reports, for almost two decades, a loosely connected group of litigators and activists worked diligently to challenge the buffer zones’ legitimacy. Their efforts finally paid off in 2014, when the U.S. Supreme Court found that “protection against unwelcome speech cannot justify restrictions on the use of public streets and sidewalks.” In short, the decision in McCullen v. Coakley found that clinics could no longer ask the courts for blanket prohibitions on picketing outside their doors—even when they anticipated prayer vigils, demonstrations, or other disruptions. They had to wait until something happened.

This, of course, was bad news for people in need of abortions and other reproductive health services, and good news for the anti-choice activists and the lawyers who represented them. Indeed, the McCullen case was an enormous win for the conservative Christian legal community, which by the early 2000s had developed into a network united by opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights.

The New States of Abortion Politics zeroes in on one of these legal groups: the well-heeled and virulently anti-choice Alliance Defending Freedom, previously known as the Alliance Defense Fund. It’s a chilling portrait.

According to Wilson, ADF’s budget was $40 million in 2012, a quarter of which came from the National Christian Foundation, an Alpharetta, Georgia, entity that claims to have distributed $6 billion in grants to right-wing Christian organizing efforts since 1982.

By any measure, ADF has been effective in promoting its multipronged agenda: “religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and the family.” In practical terms, this means opposing LGBTQ inclusion, abortion, marriage equality, and the right to determine one’s gender identity for oneself.

The group’s tentacles run deep. In addition to a staff of 51 full-time lawyers and hundreds of volunteers, a network of approximately 3,000 “allied attorneys” work in all 50 states to boost ADF’s agenda. Allies are required to sign a statement affirming their commitment to the Trinitarian Statement of Faith, a hallmark of fundamentalist Christianity that rests on a literal interpretation of biblical scripture. They also have to commit to providing 450 hours of pro bono legal work over three years to promote ADF’s interests—no matter their day job or other obligations. Unlike the American Bar Association, which encourages lawyers to provide free legal representation to poor clients, ADF’s allied attorneys steer clear of the indigent and instead focus exclusively on sexuality, reproduction, and social conservatism.

What’s more, by collaborating with other like-minded outfits—among them, Liberty Counsel and the American Center for Law and Justice—ADF provides conservative Christian lawyers with an opportunity to team up on both local and national cases. Periodic trainings—online as well as in-person ones—offer additional chances for skill development and schmoozing. Lastly, thanks to Americans United for Life, model legislation and sample legal briefs give ADF’s other allies an easy way to plug in and introduce ready-made bills to slowly but surely chip away at abortion, contraceptive access, and LGBTQ equality.

The upshot has been dramatic. Despite the recent Supreme Court win in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the number of anti-choice measures passed by statehouses across the country has ramped up since 2011. Restrictions—ranging from parental consent provisions to mandatory ultrasound bills and expanded waiting periods for people seeking abortions—have been imposed. Needless to say, the situation is unlikely to improve appreciably for the foreseeable future. What’s more, the same people who oppose abortion have unleashed a backlash to marriage equality as well as anti-discrimination protections for the trans community, and their howls of disapproval have hit a fever pitch.

The end result, Wilson notes, is that the United States now has “an inconstant localized patchwork of rules” governing abortion; some counties persist in denying marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples, making homophobic public servants martyrs in some quarters. As for reproductive health care, it all depends on where one lives: By virtue of location, some people have relatively easy access to medical providers while others have to travel hundreds of miles and take multiple days off from work to end an unwanted pregnancy. Needless to say, this is highly pleasing to ADF’s attorneys and has served to bolster their fundraising efforts. After all, nothing brings in money faster than demonstrable success.

The New States of Abortion Politics is a sobering reminder of the gains won by the anti-choice movement. And while Wilson does not tip his hand to indicate his reaction to this or other conservative victories—he is merely the reporter—it is hard to read the volume as anything short of a call for renewed activism in support of reproductive rights, both in the courts and in the streets.

News Politics

#SitInForThe49 Protesters Demand Gun Safety, Equality, and End to Community Violence (Updated)

Tina Vasquez

Protesters are demanding action from Sen. Marco Rubio and “all elected officials who have contributed to the discrimination and violence” that plagues communities of color, according to a press release.

UPDATE, July 12, 9:42 a.m.: After spending nearly ten hours at Sen. Marco Rubio’s Orlando office, ten sit-in participants were arrested, according to local news reports. Monivette Cordeiro of Orlando Weekly reported that those arrested were released from police custody as of Tuesday morning.

UNITE HERE, a national labor organization committed to LGBTQ rights, launched a sit-in on Monday at Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s Orlando, Florida office.

The 49-hour sit-in in the atrium of his office building seeks to honor the 49 predominantly Latino victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting and demand action from Rubio and “all elected officials who have contributed to the discrimination and violence” that plagues communities of color, according to a UNITE HERE press release.

In the month since the deadly mass shooting “opportunist political leaders” have done nothing to help the communities most affected by the attack, UNITE HERE said in the press release. The “No Fly No Buy” legislation, pushed by Democrats that would bar gun sales to people on a government terrorist watch list, only “employs racial profiling and fails to address the most urgent needs of marginalized communities,” it added.

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On behalf of the inaction of politicians to address issues affecting queer and trans communities of color, those participating in the #SitInForThe49 have a list of demands related to gun safety, equality, and community violence. At the top of the list is a call for lawmakers to reject financial contributions from the National Rifle Association and implement universal background checks. Protesters also want lawmakers to enact legislation making it a crime to “knowingly import, sell, manufacture, transfer, or possess a semiautomatic assault weapon or large capacity ammunition-feeding device.”

The victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, almost all of whom were queer people of color and many of whom were immigrants and undocumented, already suffered from discrimination because of their identities, poverty wages, and an unjust immigration system, according to UNITE HERE. That is why protesters are demanding “not only an end to hateful rhetoric and policies that perpetuate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, but the passage of a fully-inclusive national LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination law and comprehensive immigration reform,” UNITE HERE explained in the press release.

Lastly, those participating in the sit-in are calling for lawmakers to end police brutality and develop “a transparent database of law enforcement activities, repeal mandatory-minimums for non-violent drug offenses, and institute after-school programs, living wage jobs, and accessible higher education to cultivate brighter futures” for community members.

Rubio, who has received endorsements from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and conservative leaders opposed to LGBTQ rights, cited the Pulse nightclub shooting as the reason he was re-entering the run for re-election to the Senate, months after stating he would not run.

“Sen. Rubio claims he is ‘deeply impacted’ by last month’s Pulse Nightclub Shooting, yet he continues to terrorize Orlando’s LGBTQ+ communities of color by adhering to a platform of so-called ‘conservative values‘ which discriminates, dehumanizes, and denies access to the American dream,” said UNITE HERE.

Responding to the news of the sit-in, Sen. Rubio’s office said in a statement to Rewire: “Senator Rubio respects the views of others on these difficult issues, and he welcomes the continued input he is receiving from people across the political spectrum.”

Michelle Suarez, one of the protesters participating in the sit-in told Rewire that as an immigrant and a Latina, she felt it was important to join the sit-in because a bulk of those killed in the nightclub shooting were Latino and she wants to stand with her community. Seeing people become politicized has been a bright spot, she said, and she’s hopeful that things will “one day change” for the communities most impacted by the shooting, but the activist told Rewire she is disappointed in politicians whose politics disenfranchise communities of color.

“Marco Rubio has said he’s for the Latino community and when the shooting happened, he made a statement saying he was impacted, but the reality is that his voting record and the money he receives from the NRA and his platform of so-called ‘conservative values’ is what continues discrimination against our communities,” Suarez said.

“If politicians won’t do anything for us, we need people to start organizing and strategizing for reform. We can not tolerate the racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, or xenophobia. We hope this sit-in unites people and inspires them to organize.”