Commentary Media

El Salvador’s Right-Wing Media Begins Sustained Campaign Against Releasing 17 Women Imprisoned on Abortion-Related Charges

Kathy Bougher

High-profile ultra-conservative Salvadoran right-to-life forces have launched a vicious attack in response to the slow but significant gains achieved by the Salvadoran feminist campaign to secure legal pardons for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women unjustly imprisoned on abortion-related charges.

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

High-profile ultra-conservative Salvadoran right-to-life forces have launched a vicious attack in response to the slow but significant gains achieved by the Salvadoran feminist campaign to secure legal pardons for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women unjustly imprisoned on abortion-related charges. Utilizing the historic power of the right-wing-controlled mainstream media, right-to-life backers, including Julia Regina de Cardenal, president of Si a la Vida (Yes to Life), her mother columnist Evangelina Pilar del Sol, and columnist Evangelina de Guirola, attempt to influence public opinion against the 17 imprisoned women by publishing lurid, inflammatory details taken out of context and convoluting the truth. They represent the small cluster of wealthy, highly conservative, powerful families that have controlled El Salvador for generations.

Most recently, one Salvadoran right-to-life backer made the unconscionable choice to publish the full names of some of the 17 women, endangering both the women in prison and their families on the outside, especially their children.

Other women who have been in prison on abortion-related charges reported that they made every effort not to disclose to other inmates the crime for which they were imprisoned, as they explained in an on-the-ground interview with Rewire in March 2014. The word “abortion” in El Salvador is synonymous with “assassin” and “baby-killer.” The stigma and shame attached to abortion apply mercilessly to women in prison, and they suffer harassment, exclusion, and violence both from other inmates as well as prison personnel. In a separate interview with another researcher, a woman who served time on abortion-related charges described how other inmates would call out, “You ate your children,” when they passed by. Family members of the imprisoned women, and especially their children, become targets of harassment, name-calling, and violence in their neighborhoods and often in their schools.

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After careful consideration, the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion), which leads the campaign for Las 17, decided to refrain from sharing details of that information so as to minimize further endangering the women in prison. Rewire chooses to respect that decision by omitting the conventionally expected citations. The Agrupación is exploring possible ways to mitigate the damage and danger caused.

Even though the petitions requesting pardons for the 17 women do not purport to change the law that criminalizes abortion under all circumstances in the country, the campaign in their favor addresses the consequences of that absolute prohibition on the lives of Salvadoran women. Fissures in the silence appeared in 2013 when Beatriz, a young woman with a life-threatening health condition who was pregnant with a non-viable, anencephalic fetus, requested an abortion, and cracked open the door to a national conversation.

Why Now?

Why has the right-wing opposition become especially virulent now? It appears that the campaign to free 17 women serving sentences up to 30 or even 40 years challenges the ruling class’s choke-hold on the political, social, and economic underpinnings of the society. In phone interviews with Rewire, members of the campaign for Las 17 speculate that the right feels the pressure of the accumulated small shifts in public opinion, and that they fear they are losing territory they have controlled for generations, if not centuries.

Salvadoran economist, feminist, and respected columnist Julia Evelyn Martinez wrote an article naming the “troika” she holds responsible for the “crusade” against the 17 as Opus Dei (ultra-conservative Catholic group), Si a la Vida (Right to Life), and El Diario de Hoy (a right-wing Salvadoran mainstream newspaper). She asserts, “What makes them afraid, profoundly afraid, is that this pardon can reveal before the national conscience, the reality of the injustice in which poor women live, and for which they [the troika] are historically responsible.”

A fact which the “troika” ignores, and which the Agrupación emphasizes repeatedly in on-the-ground interviews and in its report Del Hospital a la Cárcel (From the Hospital to the Jail) is that these laws apply only to poor women in El Salvador. There is no record of a middle class or upper class women being prosecuted for arriving at a private clinic or hospital with an obstetrical complication.

A recent radio interview serves as evidence of shifts affecting the national conscience. A right-wing talk radio program, Pencho y Aida, directed at the professional and middle classes of the country, featured Dr. Sofia Villalta and Dr. Xochitl Ramirez, both highly respected obstetricians and gynecologists as well as researchers, who spoke about sexual and reproductive rights, including abortion, in unflinching scientific terms within a solid social justice and human rights framework.

Villalta asserted that in a study interviewing the Salvadoran Association of Gynecologists, “65% of those interviewed agreed with the need for legal therapeutic abortions [the woman’s life is in danger], fewer for ethical abortions [pregnancy resulting from sexual violence], and quite a lot for abortions when the fetus is not viable.”

She continued, “Not infrequently we see young pregnant women die in hospitals from cardiac problems or kidney failure, and disgracefully, in these situations we in the medical profession are powerless. The prohibition keeps us from any possibility of helping a woman survive.”

They called for a revision of the abortion law, not to foment licentiousness, as they said “some groups” have accused, but to have justice for women and change the androcentric culture.

The two physicians even took on the question of when life begins with their credible historical discussion of the changes in perspectives of the Catholic Church over the centuries. When the show’s hosts pointed out the principle that life begins at conception is part of the Salvadoran Constitution, they countered that laws are “dynamic processes,” and that “when there are conflicts, the interests of the person most at risk must prevail.”

“That the hosts allowed them to speak for a full hour without cutting them off is a significant advance,” according to Alberto Romero of the Salvadoran Movement for a Secular Culture, a member organization in the campaign for the 17, in a Skype interview with Rewire.

A Vicious Response From the Right

Building on their newspaper columns, the right has initiated a petition campaign to convince national legislators to reject the pardons for Las 17. The petition does not identify its authors, but it contains links to the same series of columns and its text features the same distortions and context- and evidence-lacking claims. It was organized through CitizenGO, a Madrid-based Christian foundation whose principles include the belief that life begins at conception.

This writer spent two weeks in June 2014 carefully reading major sections of each of the 17 women’s case files, including legal and medical documents. That background makes it possible to offer a critique of the claims in the petition and provide other perspectives.

Some of the claims made in the petition and accompanying explanatory document include:

In 100% of the cases it doesn’t have to do with the presumption of the crime of abortion, rather they were convicted for infanticide. In all cases the death of the baby took place after the birth. [Translation by the writer.]

One of the right’s major strategies is to discredit and ridicule the campaign for Las 17 by claiming that the women’s convictions are for murder and have nothing to do with abortion.

The deeper story becomes much more complex. What the files actually reveal is that originally most of the women were accused of abortion and for that reason turned over to authorities. Medical personnel viewed women brought into public hospitals hemorrhaging and semi-conscious as potential criminals because of the 1997 law prohibiting all abortions. Since abortion is not clearly defined in the law, almost anything related to an obstetrical complication can be named abortion. The law contains no language that addresses spontaneous abortions (miscarriages), stillbirths, precipitous births, or other obstetric complications. Since none of these more precise terms have come into common use in the society at large, the term abortion takes on overwhelming proportions because of the perception of the power it carries.

Other sections of the law also criminally penalize a physician who provides an abortion or who does not report suspected illegal behavior. Physicians feel pressure to err on the side of reporting, in addition to sometimes acting on their own beliefs about abortion. Because of the 1998 constitutional amendment defining life as beginning at conception, the charges against the women were amended to aggravated homicide in 15 of the 17 cases. No woman has a conviction for infanticide, but perhaps the petition utilized that term to create greater public outrage. Two women’s babies did not die from the complicated birth circumstances, but the women were still charged with attempted aggravated homicide. Yes, it’s complex, but that’s how the laws are written and applied.

We need to ask if Las 17 would have come to the attention of police and prosecutors if the criminalization of abortion did not exist in El Salvador?

The review of the files permits an observation of stories that are quite horrifying. [bold print from the original text] In many cases asphyxiation took place. In others, craneoencephalic trauma. One of them gave birth in a latrine. Another in a toilet. The baby died of perinatal asphyxia by immersion.

Tragic occurrences do happen, but they are not always the result of a deliberate action. The crafters of this document extract from their proper context particularly lurid autopsy details. The context lacking is not just textual, but also the social and political contexts in which the women live. The document utilizes passive constructions such as, “In many cases asphyxia occurred,” conjuring a terrible image of a woman asphyxiating her baby without explaining how asphyxia can occur before and during birth and omitting the distinct possibility that it happened without any criminal action. Medical professionals concur that asphyxia can be the result of complicated, unassisted births, which all of Las 17 experienced. This reflects extreme poverty, not criminal intent.

The petition makes the same kinds of accusations concerning incidents of craneoencephalic trauma, which can also occur as part of a precipitous or rapid birth, especially when unassisted. Given the descriptions that many women provided of their experiences, precipitous or rapid birth is a viable explanation. However, those terms almost never appear in the medical records.

And, yes, a large percentage of homes in El Salvador have outdoor latrines, not a crime, while others have indoor toilets. Several of the women described feeling pain and the urge to defecate, going to the latrine or the toilet, and at that point giving birth unexpectedly. So, yes, the neonate does land in the latrine or the toilet, but not as the result of a criminal action.

The Agrupación and other supporters of Las 17 have been working to bring this kind of information to the public realm, but it’s a mighty task in a highly conservative, religious society that renders invisible much about women’s bodies and the natural processes of pregnancy and childbirth, to say nothing of the complications that can result. The medical and judicial systems are structured to facilitate naming every obstetrical complication that a poor woman suffers a crime.

In another case the mother affirmed that she had given birth without help…

Yes, this woman (and thousands more) gave birth without help. That’s not a crime, but it is cruel and unjust for the state (and wealthy, powerful citizens) to stigmatize and imprison women for the consequences of living in extreme poverty in a remote area without adequate transportation or communication.

In another case she gave birth on the bank of a stream and abandoned the baby. The autopsy reveals that “it had no internal organs because the animals had eaten them.”

This highly disturbing image takes on a different perspective with the fuller story. This woman states that she was ill from a severe fever and might have lost consciousness. She regained consciousness by the bank of the stream where she recalls giving birth. She lost consciousness again, and when she came to again, she returned to her house and stayed in bed for three days recovering from her fever. No one actually observed what happened, including neighbors who were called as witnesses. The files also show that the woman lived with her parents in extreme poverty. They sent her to school as a child, but she was never able to learn to read and write, only to sign her name and do basic addition. She reported that the pregnancy resulted from a rape committed by a stranger. And, yes, in rural areas animals feed on what they find.

All the aspects of this story are uncomfortable, but it appears that the petition’s purpose in including particularly shocking details and omitting those that provide a context for this woman’s life was to provoke a sense of revulsion toward the woman and to dehumanize her. As Martinez observed, the authors of the petition “are doing everything necessary to keep the society from feeling empathy with the pain and the suffering of these 17 women.”

Fortunately in one case the baby managed to survive.

And yes, actually two of the 17 women suffered obstetric complications, but their babies lived. However, each child is spending the first decade or two of life without its mother since she is in prison for attempted aggravated homicide. One of the women and her husband explained to the judge, along with a social worker’s confirmation, that they had looked forward to having a baby, and that she had done nothing intentional to harm the baby. The judge said simply, “I don’t believe you,” and that was enough for her to go to prison instead of home to raise her child. What happened to the presumption of innocence?

Feminists allege that in the majority of the cases there was discrimination for the lack of maternal instinct. … [T]he absence of maternal instinct, this never justifies infanticide.

Absence of maternal instinct? Feminists have never used this term. This phrase contorts what judges, prosecutors charge, often in court hearings and documents along with right-to-life backers: that all women have a natural maternal instinct and that a real woman who cares about her baby will do everything possible to save its life. So, if the baby or fetus dies, it is because she is a “denaturalized woman.” In addition to the extreme prejudices the statement expresses, it ignores the fact that many of the women were unconscious and bleeding heavily at the time, were alone, and had no capacity to do anything for themselves or the fetus or newborn.

Of course a developed society should support socially mothers who find themselves facing an unexpected pregnancy or who are having difficulties.

And how does this happen in El Salvador? What “social” supports can the crafters of the petition point to for a woman with a baby she is unprepared to care for? What about political and economic support?

What happens to middle class and upper class women who confront an unexpected pregnancy? Don’t they have access to private hospitals or passports and plane tickets to leave the country to obtain whatever medical care they deem appropriate for themselves?

But in a developed society neither can we decriminalize infanticide nor permit that unscrupulous [abortion-providing] entrepreneurs profit from the suffering of women.

The arguments shift from claiming feminists want to decriminalize abortion to claiming feminists want to decriminalize infanticide, quite likely to produce more horror. Then the argument jumps to “unscrupulous entrepreneurs” who “profit from abortion” with the suffering of the women. Again, these constitute efforts to contort and sensationalize in order to exploit unfounded fears. Unscrupulous abortion profiteers flourish when abortion is criminalized.

Moving Forward

Poor women accused of abortion must confront the medical and judicial systems of El Salvador from a completely disadvantageous position, systems based on social, economic, and political structures designed to keep poor women subjugated, poor, and powerless. Until the Agrupación and its supporters started challenging these inequitable and unjust practices, they slid by under the radar unquestioned. The work of the campaign to free Las 17 lies in unmasking these realities in order to work toward the construction of a truly democratic society.

A bitter measure of success of the Agrupación so far is that the right-wing groups working against full sexual and reproductive rights for women have taken desperate steps, including resorting to endangering women in prison and their families.

This contest between dramatically distinct world views continues as Salvadoran feminists and their supporters move forward in their struggles for justice for 17 unjustly imprisoned women and to touch, as Martinez described it, the “national conscience.”

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.”