What El Salvador’s Total Abortion Ban Means for Women and Girls

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Portrait of Teodora Vasquez at her prison in El Salvador. She had been sentenced for 30 years after having an stillbirth out of suspicions of having had an abortion. In 2008, Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was sentenced to 30 years in prison for “aggravated homicide” after suffering a still-birth at work. Teodora, mother of an 11-year-old boy, was expecting a new baby when she started experiencing increasingly severe pain. She called the emergency services but her waters broke soon afterwards. She went into labour, and was unconscious when she gave birth. When she came round, bleeding profusely, her baby was dead. Police at the scene handcuffed her and arrested her on suspicion of murder. Only then did they take her to hospital where she could get the urgent treatment she needed. In El Salvador, women who miscarry or suffer a still-birth during pregnancy are routinely suspected of having had an “abortion”. Abortion under any circumstance is a crime, even in cases of rape, incest, or where a woman’s life is at risk. This makes women afraid to seek help with pregnancy-related problems, leading inevitably to more preventable deaths.

Portrait of Teodora Vasquez at her prison in El Salvador. She had been sentenced for 30 years after having an stillbirth out of suspicions of having had an abortion.

By Linda Veazey, AIUSA Board Member 

In 1998, El Salvador outlawed abortion under any circumstances, including cases where the life or health of the woman is at risk; where pregnancies are the result of rape or incest; and in cases of severe fetal abnormalities. El Salvador’s total ban violates the human rights of thousands of women and girls.

In cases like Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, some women have even been sentenced to several decades in prison even though they did not have an abortion!  In 2008, Teodora was sentenced to 30 years in prison for “aggravated homicide” after suffering a still-birth at work.  Amnesty found that Teodora was presumed guilty after she received an unfair trial in which her family could not afford effective legal representation.

The total abortion ban violates women’s and girls’ rights and puts their lives at risk. The ban denies women and girls the autonomy to make decisions regarding their own sexual and reproductive health. It also endangers the lives of women and girls, such as in the case of Beatriz—a 22-year-old woman who was forced to endure months of medical complications and uncertainty even though doctors indicated that she might die if she carried her pregnancy to term.

Marìa Sánchez mother of Teodora Vásquez stands in her daughter's room. Teodora is one of Las 17 group of women sentenced for aggravated himicide out of suspicion of having had an abortion. In 2008, Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was sentenced to 30 years in prison for “aggravated homicide” after suffering a still-birth at work. Teodora, mother of an 11-year-old boy, was expecting a new baby when she started experiencing increasingly severe pain. She called the emergency services but her waters broke soon afterwards. She went into labour, and was unconscious when she gave birth. When she came round, bleeding profusely, her baby was dead. Police at the scene handcuffed her and arrested her on suspicion of murder. Only then did they take her to hospital where she could get the urgent treatment she needed. In El Salvador, women who miscarry or suffer a still-birth during pregnancy are routinely suspected of having had an “abortion”. Abortion under any circumstance is a crime, even in cases of rape, incest, or where a woman’s life is at risk. This makes women afraid to seek help with pregnancy-related problems, leading inevitably to more preventable deaths.

Marìa Sánchez mother of Teodora Vásquez stands in her daughter’s room. Teodora is one of Las 17 group of women sentenced for aggravated homicide out of suspicion of having had an abortion.

In addition to endangering women’s and girls’ lives, forcing rape and incest survivors—some as young as 9—to carry out pregnancies is, according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, tantamount to torture and other forms of ill-treatment. The total abortion ban also causes women and girls to seek unsafe, clandestine abortions that frequently result in serious medical complications. Furthermore, if complications occur during clandestine abortion procedures, women and girls are afraid to seek medical help for fear that they will be arrested for violating the abortion ban.

The total ban on abortion has also created a climate of fear whereby doctors and other medical professionals feel obliged to report women who suffer from medical complications to the police for fear that they will be charged with aiding an abortion if they do not do so. Attorney Denis Muñoz has described the climate created by the abortion ban as a “witch hunt against poor women.”

Many of you have taken action on behalf of the women and girls in El Salvador. And most recently, the Amnesty International USA Board of Directors wrote a letter to Francisco Altschul Fuentes, the Salvadoran Ambassador to the United States, urging him to “help ensure that Teodora del Carmen Vásquez is immediately released” and “to help ensure the release of all other women incarcerated in El Salvador for pregnancy related complications.”

There is reason for hope. In 2015, the Salvadoran National Assembly agreed to pardon and release Carmen Guadalupe Vásquez Aldana, another women imprisoned following pregnancy complications, following an outpouring of support from Amnesty members and other activists around the world.

Cecilia Vásquez Sánchez and María Elena Sánchez, Teodora Vásquez Sánchez's sister and mother, pose at Amnesty International's office in Mexico City. Both are wearing Amnesty International tee shirts. In 2008, Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was sentenced to 30 years in prison for “aggravated homicide” after suffering a still-birth at work. Teodora, mother of an 11-year-old boy, was expecting a new baby when she started experiencing increasingly severe pain. She called the emergency services but her waters broke soon afterwards. She went into labour, and was unconscious when she gave birth. When she came round, bleeding profusely, her baby was dead. Police at the scene handcuffed her and arrested her on suspicion of murder. Only then did they take her to hospital where she could get the urgent treatment she needed. In El Salvador, women who miscarry or suffer a still-birth during pregnancy are routinely suspected of having had an “abortion”. Abortion under any circumstance is a crime, even in cases of rape, incest, or where a woman’s life is at risk. This makes women afraid to seek help with pregnancy-related problems, leading inevitably to more preventable deaths.

Cecilia Vásquez Sánchez and María Elena Sánchez, Teodora Vásquez Sánchez’s sister and mother, pose at Amnesty International’s office in Mexico City. Both are wearing Amnesty International tee shirts.

Teodora and her family also have hope, now that tens of thousands of Amnesty activists have written letters on her behalf as part of the 2015 Write for Rights campaign. Many people have also uploaded photos and messages of support to show their solidarity with Teodora. Thank you to everyone who has taken part in these actions!

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