In El Salvador a woman who experiences a late-term miscarriage not only suffers the trauma of losing her pregnancy, she has the very real risk of being imprisoned.
That’s what happened to Christina Quintanilla. In 2004, seven months into her pregnancy, Quintanilla was alarmed when she realized that she was going into labor. After calling emergency responders (who never arrived), the then-17-year-old was rushed to a nearby hospital. When she came to, not only was she faced with the grief of a stillbirth, but with the aggression of criminal investigators who were prepared to arrest her for murder.
Quintanilla’s story is not unique.
In a region that already stands out as having some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, El Salvador goes even farther by being one of only three countries (along with Chile and the Dominican Republic) that grant no exceptions in the criminalization of abortion. While several other Latin American countries allow for the termination of a pregnancy in cases of the endangerment of the mother’s life or rape, since 1997, El Salvador followed a more draconian route.
A woman accused of terminating a pregnancy in El Salvador can face up to 50 years in prison, and medical service providers who are found to have assisted in an abortion can get sent away for up to 12. The evidence used to support these accusations is often flimsy, as was the case for Quintanilla. So far, under these laws at least 129 women have been jailed, and several face 30 to 40 year terms.
Never mind the fact that the criminalization of abortion in El Salvador has forced girls and women with no place else to turn to seek out dangerous alternatives, such as ingesting rat poison, sticking knitting needles, wood, and sharp objects into their cervixes, and abusing the ulcer treatment drug misoprostol.
Ignore for a second the World Health Organization’s news that 11% of girls and women who underwent clandestine abortions between 1995 and 2008 in El Salvador died as a result.
Forget for a second that recent poll by La Pagina that found that 74% of Salvadorans surveyed were in favor of a pregnancy termination when a woman’s life was at risk.
Oh yeah, and please don’t dwell on the fact that El Salvador has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Latin America, and that suicide accounts for 57% of the deaths of pregnant teenagers aged 10 to 19.
Let’s just look at the positive things El Salvador is a party to. In 1981, El Salvador ratified and since has been party to The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which provides for the right to family planning. As part of El Salvador’s international commitment to human rights it also recently gained a seat on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). As a result, El Salvador can now tout itself as part of an international, standard-bearing group of human rights defenders, having promised to “continue to promote legislation and administrative and other measures in order to advance the goal of ensuring that public policy guarantees the full exercise of human rights.”
Yet is there a greater hypocrisy than dedicating yourself to basic human rights, while leaving the possibility of unjust imprisonment and death due to an inhumane and retrograde stance on a critical social and health issue?
By being party to the UNHRC and CEDAW, El Salvador has a plateful of obligations to fulfill. If it wants to make good on those promises, the easiest, popular, and most critical steps will be ensuring not only that women such as Christina Quintanilla aren’t unjustly imprisoned, but placing these decisions into the hands of patients and their medical providers within a policy framework that recognizes the right of a woman to make the best decision for her pregnancy, health, and economic future.
Quintanilla had served four years of her 30 year sentence before a lawyer took up her case and argued successfully that the cause of her baby’s death had never been established. She was one of the lucky ones.