The Guardian, Thursday 17 April 2014
El Salvador’s strict abortion laws mean a woman can be charged with homicide for suffering a miscarriage. But a high-profile case that drew global condemnation may prove a catalyst for change
Cristina Quintanilla was 18 years old in October 2004 when, seven months pregnant with her second child, she collapsed in pain on the floor of her family home. “I felt like I was choking, like I couldn’t breathe,” she says, shaking at the memory.
Quintanilla, who lives in San Miguel, El Salvador, fell unconscious and, bleeding heavily, was taken to hospital by her mother. When she woke up, dizzy from blood loss and anaesthetic, and having lost her child, she says she was startled to find a police officer, not a doctor, by her bed.
“It was strange because doctors wear white but he was wearing blue … He said, ‘From this moment on, you are under arrest.’ This confused me even more.”
Quintanilla says she was interrogated while still under the effect of anaesthetic, handcuffed and brought from hospital to a cell in a police jail, accused of having killed ker child. Within 10 months, she was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison. “It was another huge tragedy in my life. I had a son, who was three years old. How could I ever be with my child, with my family, with a sentence [like this]?”
El Salvador has one of the world’s strictest abortion laws, with abortion a crime even when a woman’s life is at risk. Human rights activists say this has created a system of persecution in the country’s hospitals as well as its courts, where any woman – and particularly a poor, young woman who loses her baby – is suspect.
Dozens of women like Quintanilla have reportedly been prosecuted and imprisoned on homicide charges after suffering miscarriages, stillbirths, or obstetric emergencies away from medical attention.
According to the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizens’ Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Abortion), 129 women were prosecuted for abortion-related crimes in El Salvador between 2000 and 2011, with 49 convicted (23 for abortion, 26 for homicide).
In a report published with the Centre for Reproductive Rights, the Agrupación says: “Enforcement of the country’s abortion law has had serious consequences in hospitals and healthcare centres, where any woman who comes to an emergency room haemorrhaging is presumed to be a criminal.”
In many of the cases documented, health workers had reported women to the police.
Quintanilla was released from prison in 2009, after the supreme court ruled her sentence was excessive. Today she is part of a small but growing movement determined to challenge the law.
“What I suffered is like a motor that makes me do things that sometimes I can’t believe. I’m doing them to support other women. It’s unjust that our legal branch has these laws that do so much damage,” said Quintanilla, who was villified as a child killer in the local media and lost contact with her partner.
Activists this month launched a campaign demanding official pardons for 17 women serving prison sentences of up to 40 years. Most, they say, were prosecuted after suffering obstetric complications away from medical care.
Over the past 30 years, dozens of countries have moved to liberalise their abortion laws. But a handful, including El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Chile, have tightened them.
In 1998, a new penal code in El Salvador removed exceptions under which abortion had previously been allowed. Every abortion is now illegal, regardless of circumstance. In 1999, the country’s constitution was further amended to recognise the right to life from the moment of conception.
Last year, international condemnation greeted the supreme court’s refusal to authorise a medical abortion to a 22-year-old lupus sufferer known as Beatriz, whose life was considered at risk and whose foetus was unviable. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHCR) all voiced concern.
Beatriz’s health deteriorated and she was granted a caesarean section to save her life at 27 weeks. The baby died within hours.
High-profile backers of El Salvador’s abortion ban include senior figures in the Catholic church, National Republic Alliance party and the influential lobby group Sí a la Vida (Yes to Life).
While Beatriz’s case was being debated, José Luis Escobar, archbishop of San Salvador, reportedly suggested it would be inhuman and “against nature” for her to have an abortion, saying: “Sure, [Beatriz] has health problems, but she’s not in grave danger of death. Since we need to consider both lives we need to ask, whose life is in greater danger. We think that the foetus is in greater danger.”
Morena Herrera, a leader in the Agrupación and La Colectiva Feminista in San Salvador, said the stigma and public pressure surrounding abortion has made it difficult for dissenters to speak out.
“People are afraid of … being pointed out in church, in their community, even in their family sometimes,” she said. “Some people think we are defending abortion, not the rights of women. They think we don’t like kids. Sometimes there are situations of threats.”
Quintanilla’s lawyer, Dennis Munoz Estanley, is now condemned by conservatives as the “pro-abortion lawyer”. Munoz Estanley, who is now also legal adviser for the Agrupación, says his daughter has faced discrimination at school, and that it has been difficult to convince other lawyers to defend such cases.
Beatriz’s case has, however, helped to change the tone of public debate, says Herrera. “Her situation and her requests and the fear the doctors had in intervening was evidence of how absurd the situation was. There is a before and after Beatriz for us, because many people said it didn’t make sense that she was not given permission [to end her pregnancy].”
“A lot of people think this law now needs to be changed,” she added
Rosa María Hernández, president of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (Catholics for the Right to Decide), agrees. She says a growing number of Catholics are critical of the abortion law, though they may lack the space to discuss it.
“The absolute criminalisation of abortion has been one of the biggest steps backward that El Salvador has taken,” she says.
While a wealthier woman can leave the country to have an abortion, or go to a private clinic that may not report her, most women do not have these options, she adds: “If you are poor and want an abortion you are waiting for jail or death.”
In addition to the campaign for clemency for 17 women in prison, activists have mounted cases against the Salvadoran government at the IAHCR. One has been filed on behalf of Beatriz, and another on behalf of “Manuela”, a mother of two who died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma while serving a 30-year prison sentence for aggravated homicide.