Elsy was working as a housekeeper in 2011. She was a single parent with another child on the way. Then she started bleeding. Elsy was suffering what the Women’s Equality Center calls an “obstetric emergency.”
Elsy would go on to lose the pregnancy.
Because she’s a citizen of El Salvador, Elsy’s medical emergency became a legal nightmare. Instead of getting a few days off work for recovery or set up for grief counseling, she was arrested on suspicion of having an abortion and sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide.
El Salvador has a total ban on abortion, but while the law only expressly outlaws abortion, its consequences spread far and wide. The complete ban has made medical staff suspicious of patients who have tangentially related occurrences, like vaginal bleeding, and led to legal nightmares from nearly 200 women since any exceptions were removed from the law in 1998. This means people who experience obstetric emergencies like stillbirths, miscarriages, rapid labor, or out-of-hospital births are at legal risk, even if abortion is not a part of their health record.
“I think El Salvador is one of those scary tales that can serve as an example for other countries,” WEC Executive Director Paula Ávila-Guillén told Jezebel. “Any type of obstetric emergency becomes a suspicion of a crime. Hospital settings because crime scenes because doctors are fearful of possible repercussions.”
As abortion rights activists have been shouting in America, the El Salvador ban disproportionately impacts poor people and people in rural areas. A coalition for pregnant people’s rights in Central America has freed more than 60 women from prison since 2009. Elsy is one of Las 17, or The 17 Women, identified by human rights groups as being imprisoned for obstetric emergencies (some had miscarriages while others had stillbirths). All were sentenced to at least 30 years in prisons for their supposed crimes. Since December, legal activists have secured the release of four women: Kenia, Karen, Kathy, and Evelyn.
“These are women who are not afforded due process or guaranteed access to comprehensive health care because they live in impoverished environments and because of the stereotypes that weigh on them simply because of their gender,” Carmen Cecilia Martínez, Associate Director of Legal Strategies for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights said in a statement.