The Women Imprisoned For Miscarriage in the Strictest Anti-Abortion Country On Earth

Women protest in support of Manuela, San Salvador, March 10, 2021
Women protest in support of Manuela, San Salvador, March 10, 2021
Photo: MARVIN RECINOS / AFP (Getty Images)

A Salvadoran woman sentenced to 30 years in prison for miscarrying in 2012 is still waiting to learn her fate after a planned hearing Monday was postponed due to a technical issue.

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The woman, whose family has asked that she simply be named as “Sara” out of concern for her safety, was convicted after she says she slipped and fell in her home, causing a miscarriage. The medics who treated her, however, suspected Sara of having an abortion and reported her to the Salvadoran police in a country that has suffered under some of the world’s strictest abortion laws since 1998. Under the laws, abortion is completely banned, even in cases of rape and incest. Over the past 20 years, 140 women have been imprisoned for failing to carry their pregnancies to term, with many of those convicted claiming (and in some cases proven by medical professionals) to have experienced spontaneous miscarriage. Not that it should matter how a person becomes not pregnant, but in recent years, women who have been able to prove that they didn’t cause their miscarriages have seen their sentences overturned, which is why expert witnesses were called to testify on Sara’s behalf that her miscarriage was not a result of an attempt to abort, according to international human rights attorney and advisor to Sara’s legal team Paula Ávila-Guillen, who spoke with Jezebel about the case.

“New evidence been used for years in order to differentiate miscarriage from abortion in her case fetus died inside the womb,” Ávila-Guillen told Jezebel. “But it’s hard to get one of these hearings, as cases are only reopened if expert witnesses can testify to that difference.”

In Sara’s case, she claims that she was very much looking forward to her pregnancy and was devastated even as doctors reported her and she was accused of murder as she recovered in her hospital bed. Similarly, in 2019, Evelyn Hernández was also released from prison after being sentenced to 30 years for miscarrying after the defense presented similar evidence. Others, however, like a woman known simply as Manuela, who lost her baby as a result of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and was then jailed for murder, have died in prison waiting for the system to recognize that their miscarriages were not their fault.

Ávila-Guillen says the U.S. should take heed of the human rights abuses that come hand-in-hand with El Salvador’s draconian abortion bans, as she sees similarities between the language of “trigger laws” in many U.S. states that would make abortion illegal immediately upon the Supreme Court’s dissolution of the Roe v. Wade ruling, in some cases making abortion a crime punishable by jail time.

“The activists I’ve spoken to say they never thought the country would go this far,” Ávila-Guillen told Jezebel. “None of them thought that by changing the law it would create this terrible nightmare for women.”

And much like the U.S., abortion restriction almost overwhelmingly affects lower-income women. According to Jacobin, private abortion is still available in El Salvador but costs around $1,200, when many families are surviving on $200 a month. Abortion seekers from wealthy backgrounds also have access to black-market abortion pills or the option to travel out of the country for abortion, while women without those resources find themselves imprisoned for losing wanted pregnancies. And now that El Salvador’s total abortion ban has been the law of the land for over 20 years, it takes the entire world to free the ban’s women victims.

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“All of these women are in situations of poverty,” Ávila-Guillen, “and now trying to free them requires us to mobilize the entire world. This should be a big call to activists and legislators as an example of what we don’t want.”

DISCUSSION

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Margaret Griswold

It’s absolutely horrible, but also should WE really be the ones to call it out? Because this is where we are heading to. There’s probably some American evangelicals who see this case as a great thing, and that is fucking disturbing.