In 2004, as an 18-year-old mother of a small child, Christina Quintanilla experienced a spontaneous abortion in the bathroom at her home, lost the fetus she was carrying, and lay unconscious and bleeding heavily.
Her mother took her to the hospital to get medical care, where doctors performed a dilation and curettage procedure, a frequent practice for miscarriages.
“While I was coming out of the anesthesia, I remember seeing a man dressed in blue,” Quintanilla told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) earlier this month in Washington, D.C., along with recounting the rest of her story. “That seemed odd since doctors in El Salvador wear white. The man asked me my name and then told me, ‘Christina Quintanilla, you are under arrest for aggravated homicide!’ I was shocked.”
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Quintanilla continued, “I don’t understand how the Ministry of Health let someone come in to interrogate me when I was still barely conscious.”
Quintanilla, who ultimately spent four years in prison, was one of more than dozens of women in El Salvador who have been convicted and incarcerated for obstetric complications on charges related to the country’s total ban on abortion. Now 29, she had come to Washington, D.C. to testify in front of the IACHR, part of the Organization of American States (OAS), of which El Salvador is a member. The hearing not only highlighted Quintanilla’s story, which closely parallels that of many other women in the country; it also illuminated the Salvadoran government’s failure to acknowledge the real effect of its laws on its citizens.
El Salvador’s Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion), its sister organization, Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local (Feminist Collective for Local Development), and the New York City-based Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) had petitioned for last week’s hearing to compel the IACHR to make a report on the situation facing women in El Salvador, possibly leading to a change in the country’s strict abortion policy.
El Salvador has signed two OAS human rights conventions: the 1977 American Convention on Human Rights and the 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women. When a country signs on to conventions like these, they agree that their laws must correspond to them; the petitioners believe that this is not the case in El Salvador. If the IACHR agrees, it can make recommendations to governments to take particular actions; if those recommendations are not followed, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, also part of the OAS, could choose to legally require the country to do so.
“In August 2005, I was [sentenced] to prison for 30 years,” Quintanilla told the IACHR, describing a judicial process that included a public defender not knowing her name—suggesting the defender had not read her file before trial—and a forensic report for her stillborn infant that listed the cause of death as “undetermined.” “My case was in the media as, ‘woman sentenced to 30 years for killing her baby,’ and as a result my life was in danger in prison. A woman in prison for abortion is in more danger than someone who is there for extortion or drugs.”
Quintanilla is now working with the Agrupación, a feminist organization that fights for reproductive justice in El Salvador. The group helped to free Quintanilla in 2009; it has aided in the release of nine other women in jail on abortion-related charges to date. It also requested pardons for the group of women known as Las 17, who are also in prison with convictions related to obstetric emergencies, while at the same time laying the groundwork for a change in the legislation that prohibits all abortions.
In prison, Quintanilla “met a human rights lawyer who was concerned that I was convicted without any evidence,” she continued, describing an attorney who works closely with the Agrupación. “After attempting several legal procedures, he filed for a commutation of sentence, which shortened my sentence.”
Upon her release, Quintanilla recounted, “The court said there had been a ‘judicial error.’ That judicial error meant I spent four years in prison and lost contact with my family. When I got out the media didn’t say I had been imprisoned because of a ‘judicial error.’ I was still the woman convicted of murdering my baby. I still have a criminal record, and that makes life difficult for me to this day.”
Quintanilla asked the IACHR to make sure this didn’t happen to any other women, and to stand up for those still in prison.
Angelica Rivas, an attorney with the Agrupacion and the Colectiva Feminista, testified after Quintanilla as to violations of doctor-patient confidentiality, lack of adequate defense, and other various human rights violations she argued are common in the women’s cases. However, she also highlighted the gender stereotypes that tend to carry weight in the judicial proceedings. For example, she said, judges and prosecutors frequently invoke the stereotype of the “super mother,” who, even when unconscious herself, has the responsibility to save the life of her child. If she did not succeed in saving the child’s life, according to this logic, then she must have intended to murder her child.
Representatives from CRR requested that the IACHR visit the women’s prison in El Salvador to understand the situation in greater depth; that it solicit further information from the government; that it review other women’s pending cases; and that it hold the Salvadoran government accountable to the policies it promised to uphold with the signing of conventions.
The four Salvadoran government representatives present at the hearing opened their testimony by stating that they had not been told that the topic of the hearing was women imprisoned for charges resulting from obstetric emergencies. They had arrived, they said, prepared to discuss prison conditions for women, but nothing specifically related to women being incarcerated due to obstetric emergencies.
Although Quintanilla mentioned the dangers she faced in prison in her testimony, which have also been reported by Rewire, that was not why the petitioners had called the hearing. Government representatives proceeded to give testimony about various efforts and programs to improve prison conditions, but never once mentioned women imprisoned for obstetric emergencies.
After the government representatives had concluded their testimonies, IACHR rapporteur on the rights of the child Rosa María Ortiz opened the hearing’s question period by asking the Salvadoran government representatives, “Why such violent treatment of these women in El Salvador?” She then proceeded to list issues she wanted the government to respond to, including the role of religion, the role of the Ministry of Health in resolving problems in public hospitals—such as the fact that it is frequently physicians who report women to the police—and ways to prevent sending women to prison while these doubtful cases are being resolved. She also asked what happened to women who left children behind when they went to prison.
Tracy Robinson, IACHR rapporteur for the rights of women, commented, “I regret that the State has not been capable of responding.” She then asked the government officials to explain through what avenues, whether executive or legislative, the State would be able to resolve the problems of women imprisoned for obstetric complications as well as the further human rights violations they reportedly experience in prison.
IACHR President Rose-Marie Belle Antoine expressed her frustration with the lack of an adequate governmental response in the hearing and requested that the government respond in writing to the specific questions the IACHR raised, which they agreed to do.
Paula Avila-Guillen, CRR’s attorney and program specialist, pointed out that she herself had met with government officials more than once in El Salvador, discussing ways to mitigate the criminalization of women; the failure to observe doctor-patient confidentiality; and the need to differentiate between spontaneous abortion or miscarriage, an obstetric emergency, and an induced abortion. In spite of those conversations, she noted, “the cases continue to come from the hospitals.”
There is not yet a definitive date by which the IACHR will issue its report on the hearing, especially since it must await the written responses from the Salvadoran government.
Katia Recinos, Agrupación legal team coordinator, expressed in an email to Rewire her “indignation” about the government’s failure to prepare for the hearing, noting that this demonstrates “how very far officials are from understanding the situation of women imprisoned for having obstetric emergencies.”
Recinos is hopeful, however, about CRR’s request that the IACHR visit the prison in El Salvador. “It will be international pressure that will push the government to initiate a dialogue. I hope that they visit the prison, review other cases from El Salvador, and sanction the Salvadoran government for not revising its legislation.”
Agrupación member Alberto Romero pointed out through email that on October 12, a week before the hearing, the Salvadoran Office of the Attorney General for Human Rights issued a report on reproductive rights in the country that called for a “dialogue” on the country’s abortion legislation. Most supporters interpret this as a push for changing the law to be less strict. “The fact that the hearing was held puts pressure on the government,” Romero wrote. “We will examine the report from the IACHR to see how it links to the call from Human Rights for a dialogue.”
Avila-Guillen also envisions potentially positive outcomes of the hearing, noting that more global attention paid to the issue may compel the Salvadoran government to at least start considering ways to modify legislation. “The government can’t hide from us,” she told Rewire. “The commission demanded that they respond. The important outcome is that the situation is more visible now, and the commission can help open the dialogue.”
At the hearing, Quintanilla had the last word. She looked the government representatives in the eye. “What I hope is that this does not continue to happen,” Quintanilla said. “My heart and my soul hurt knowing that other women are still in prison and that their lives are at risk.”