Mothers caught up in El Salvador's abortion ban put focus on families

The Latin American country has one of the world's strictest laws against abortion, and dozens of women say they were wrongly jailed after suffering miscarriages. As El Salvador debates loosening the ban, they're trying to change the conversation.

Jose Cabezas/ Reuters
Women participate in a demonstration in support of Evelyn Hernandez, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for a suspected abortion, in San Salvador, El Salvador on July 10, 2017. The banner reads "Justice for Evelyn."

Mirna Ramírez was arrested for attempting to murder her daughter on the day she was born.

Ms. Ramírez was seven months pregnant when she suddenly went into labor at home, where she delivered her daughter. Neighbors rushed to help and arrived right after the birth. Afterward, though, saying they suspected she had been trying to abort the baby, they reported her to authorities. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

“It was the worst day of my life,” says Ramírez, who was freed on parole three years ago, after serving 12. “They didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t try an abortion. My daughter was left alone.”

El Salvador has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. For 20 years, the procedure has been banned without exceptions. The Constitution defines life as beginning at conception. Most controversially, however, abortion is criminalized. Dozens of women who say they suffered miscarriages or stillbirths have been imprisoned.

That may be poised to change. A bill introduced in the legislature this spring would permit abortions in a few cases, such as the rape of a minor, or to save the life of a mother. That debate would not have taken place even a few years ago, some activists say. They point to “Las 17,” as the original group of imprisoned women are known, for helping to shine a spotlight on an overlooked side of the law – its consequences for families left behind – and on the lack of justice for women who have suffered miscarriages, convicted through trials that critics say assume guilt and often proceed without direct proof.

After Ramírez began her sentence, her daughter, Briseida, grew up with her mother’s family. She saw her mother only on Sundays, when Ramírez was allowed to visit home. 

“Every Sunday, as we said goodbye, she asked me not to leave her,” Ramírez says. “I saw her grow up, but I was never around…. They say the law against abortion intends to protect families, but it almost ruined mine.”

Catalyst for change

El Salvador’s laws popped into the international spotlight last month, when a judge sentenced Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez Cruz to 30 years in prison. Ms. Hernandez, who became pregnant at age 18 after being raped repeatedly by a gang member, said she did not realize she was pregnant. She gave birth in a bathroom, and her child was stillborn.

Gang violence has turned El Salvador into one of the world's most violent countries, particularly for women: it has the world’s highest rate of femicide, and domestic violence is prevalent. In more than half of rape cases in recent years, the alleged victim is under the age of 15, and only 10 percent end with a conviction.

Earlier this spring, momentum grew around a proposal to loosen restrictions in cases of rape of a minor, human trafficking, unviable pregnancies, and when the mother’s life is at risk. The bill received support from church groups, doctors, and activists.

“Las 17” – most of whom are still in prison – have made the current debate possible, according to Laura Aguirre, a Salvadoran doctoral student at the Free University of Berlin who researches sexual violence. One story had a particular impact, she says.

In 2013, “Beatriz” – a pseudonym – was 22 years old and expecting her second child. Doctors said that the fetus could not survive; meanwhile, preexisting medical conditions put her life in danger as the pregnancy progressed. The supreme court ruled that she could not have an abortion, but one doctor caring for her decided to perform a C-section at seven months. Her baby died within hours.

Beatriz’s story “stirred the waters in El Salvador,” says Ms. Aguirre. “In this country we always debate the rights of fetuses, but we rarely debate the rights of existing children. There’s the belief that the mother must be willing to sacrifice everything for her child, even her life, but that belief doesn’t apply to the children that are left alone when these women are sent to jail.”

Beatriz “changed the focus” by stressing that “her son had the right to grow up with his mother,” she adds.

Helping kids, but keeping the law

Supporters of El Salvador’s current laws see the stories of “Las 17” differently.

These cases “distort reality,” according to Ricardo Velásquez Parker, a legislator who last year introduced a bill to increase the maximum penalty for abortion from eight to 50 years. 

The women are “in jail because they have murdered their babies,” not because of abortion, Mr. Velásquez Parker says. “When a mother goes to jail, what happens to her kids is sad and I understand the drama, but killing people is wrong.”

Karla Hernández, also a legislator, says the focus should be on improving the lives of these children once their mothers are arrested.

“It should be possible for these kids to grow up healthily around their mothers in jail, but the living conditions there are unacceptable,” she says, adding, “We should be debating the lack of policies to help the families of these women” instead of liberalizing abortion laws.

Uneven impact

Opponents say that El Salvador has not curbed abortion: Between 1995 and 2000 alone, there were nearly 250,000 abortions in the country, according to the Global Health Council. Instead, they argue, the current law “creates an atmosphere of suspicion,” as Amnesty International wrote in a 2015 report, and has a disproportionate impact on poor women and families. The wealthy are able to seek care abroad, or at private clinics.

María Teresa Rivera’s son, Oscar, was six years old when his mother was sentenced to 40 years in prison for murder after suffering a miscarriage. Ms. Rivera, who was raising her son on her own, says she did not realize she was pregnant, and that no doctors were present to testify at her initial trial. Both of her parents had died, and Oscar’s father wasn’t around; his parental grandparents took care of him.

“It was a really dark moment for us,” Rivera remembers. She had always worked hard to pay his private school fees, trying to keep him away from gangs’ influence. A decriminalization advocacy group, Agrupación Ciudadana, helped pay his school fees, but Oscar became depressed, she says. 

“He had to face the other kids telling him his mother had killed his brother. He wanted to give up,” Rivera says. His grandparents were “a big support, but they can barely read or write. He lost a year in school.”

Rivera was exonerated in 2016. A few months after she was released from jail, however, prosecutors appealed for the original verdict to be reinstated. With the help of Agrupación Ciudadana, she fled the country with her son, and was granted asylum in Sweden earlier this year.

“I wasn’t the perfect mother, but I always try to do what is best for my son,” she says. “Had I known I was pregnant, I would have done the same with my second son.” 

An unlikely debate

Dennis Muñoz is known in El Salvador as the “abortion lawyer.” For almost a decade, he has defended women prosecuted on abortion-related charges.

“The Constitution of El Salvador considers family unity as a main principle, but the stories of these women counter that,” he says. But given the current debate, Muñoz says he’s feeling hopeful that a mentality shift is taking place.

“Seven years ago we didn’t dare dream there would be a bill in parliament. When the law was introduced everyone said it would be rejected. But here we are, still debating it,” he says.

For now, the proposal seems stalled in the legislature. Velásquez Parker says that the vast majority of Salvadorans “think abortion is wrong,” and that no major changes will happen soon. “Any politician who supports abortion will be massively rejected by the population,” he says.

A recent poll, however, suggests that a majority of the country now supports reform. Nearly four-fifths of respondents say that abortion should be decriminalized in at least some circumstances, according to a survey conducted by a local women’s group and the polling firm Untold Research.

“Little by little, the way Salvadorans see the abortion law is changing,” says Morena Herrera, who leads Agrupación Ciudadana. The stories of “Las 17” are “helping change mentalities.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.

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