A 33-year-old woman in El Salvador who suffered a medical emergency while pregnant has been freed after serving a decade in jail for attempted murder, the victim of a draconian abortion ban being replicated in the US.
The woman, named only as Jacqueline, sought medical help for an obstetric complication in 2011, and even though the baby survived, she was arrested on suspicion of attempted abortion. She was separated from her newborn daughter and eight-year-old son, and sentenced to 15 years for attempted murder.
Jacqueline, who was released on Wednesday, is the 65th woman to be freed having been wrongly jailed on murder charges following a miscarriage or other obstetric emergency since the total ban on abortion came into force in 1998.
The Salvadorian anti-abortion law, which was subsequently written into the constitution, has led to at least 182 women who suffered an obstetric emergency being prosecuted for abortion or aggravated homicide.
Poor, young, women from rural areas with limited access to healthcare have been disproportionately persecuted, with most reported to the police by hospital workers. In many cases, prosecutors and judges have argued that the woman’s failure to save the pregnancy amounted to murder.
Salvadorian lawyers and activists have worked to free the convicted women, pursuing pardons, sentence reduction and access to education and work programs that can lead to an early release. Ten women have been freed since last December, leaving three still in prison.
Each case has taken a sustained campaign of protests, public health efforts and media pressure, according to Morena Herrera, a reproductive rights campaigner who recalls the moment when lawmakers, spurred on by the religious right, voted to ban abortion without exception in April 1997.
“I warned them that this law would end the presumption of innocence for pregnant women, which is exactly what happened. It’s this same risk that the US is now facing,” said Herrera.
A leaked supreme court decision suggests that Roe vs Wade – the 1973 ruling which guarantees the right to abortion – will soon be overturned, resulting in about half of US states banning or severely restricting access to safe legal abortion. Texas and Oklahoma have already approved severe restrictions.
Herrera added: “Don’t let our reality become your reality. If the law changes, doctors’ hands will be tied and women will die. Do everything you can to stop this because the consequences of losing access to abortion are grave.”
In El Salvador, a country of 6.5 million people, the consequences include death for women with ectopic pregnancies who have been denied timely medical care. Many others have suffered complications to their physical and mental health. Suicide rates among young pregnant women have risen.
Last week advocates were dismayed when Esme, a 28-year-old from a poor rural community, was sentenced to 30 years for aggravated homicide after suffering a miscarriage – the first woman convicted for an obstetric complication in seven years.
“We are in shock, maybe we didn’t put enough pressure. You can never take your foot off the pedal,” said Paula Ávila-Guillén, a human rights lawyer and executive director of the New York-based Women’s Equality Centre. Esme spent two years in jail on remand, but is currently at home while lawyers appeal the verdict.
The battle to free the three other women continues.
María del Rosario was 23 years old when she started haemorrhaging at home alone. Instead of receiving medical help, she was detained by police and sentenced to 30 years for aggravated homicide (later reduced to 20 years). María del Rosario’s pregnancy was the result of rape; her alleged aggressor was acquitted. She has spent a decade in prison.
Liliana was a 21-year-old mother expecting her second baby in 2016 when she was sentenced to 30 years in jail for homicide after suffering a medical emergency. The sentence was later halved, but she has already spent seven years separated from her daughter.
The case of Bertha Arana is especially egregious. Arana, 28, was convicted of attempted murder in 2012 after suffering a medical emergency, even though her daughter survived. But unlike Jacqueline, every attempt to secure a reduction in her 30-year sentence has been blocked because Arana was born just over the border in Guatemala and does not have Salvadorian identity papers. She has not seen her daughter since giving birth.
“Bertha’s case is not just unjust, it’s cruel,” said Herrera. The UN has condemned such cases as arbitrary detentions.
As the US contemplates the reality of a post-Roe world, the Salvadorian experience demonstrates the long-term impact on women who are criminalised.
Cristina Quintanilla was 18 and excited about motherhood when she suffered a late miscarriage in 2005. She woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed, and was given 30 years for aggravated murder, though was released after serving four after a sentence review.
Vilified as a “baby killer” in El Salvador, Quintanilla was unable to find work and in 2014 made it to the US where she sought asylum. She’s been in legal limbo ever since, waiting for an immigration judge to rule on the case, but was denied a work visa because of her criminal record.
“The injustice continues, I can’t escape it. I’m so tired of fighting to clear my name, to be given an opportunity to live my life,” said Quintanilla, 36. “It’s very unfortunate what’s happening here. Americans face a very uncertain future, it will be chaos.”
The US backslide comes amid a wave of legal and political reproductive rights victories across Latin America improving access to safe abortion from women in countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Chile and Argentina.
Ávila-Guillén, who works with lawyers and activists across Latin America, said they had learned lessons from the erosion of abortion rights in the US.
“We realised that human rights standards and legal strategy would never be enough, we also needed mass mobilizations, activism, political work and a communication strategy, and that’s what the US will need to do to win hearts and minds and get our rights back.”