Pivotal moment for El Salvador's abortion law reform

by Catalina Martínez Coral | Center for Reproductive Rights
Tuesday, 13 March 2018 17:58 GMT

Maira Veronica Figueroa, who was sentenced to 30 years of jail under charges of abortion, embraces her father as she is released from jail after the Supreme Court of El Salvador commuted her sentence, in IIopango, El Salvador March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

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International Women’s Day saw over 3,000 women take to the streets of San Salvador to march in defense of their human rights

Maira Veronica Figueroa has something to celebrate for the first time in 15 years. This week, she was released from prison in her native El Salvador after serving half of her 30-year sentence of aggravated murder. Her crime? Losing her baby near full-term after being impregnated by rape.

In a case that was covered widely in international media, on Feb. 15 this year, fellow El Salvadoran Teodora Vásquez was released from Llopango prison after she had served 10 years of a 30-year sentence also for aggravated murder of a newborn baby. Her crime? A stillbirth in 2007.

Teodora and Maira are now free, but their sentences have not been overturned. In December, Teodora lost her appeal against it despite efforts by forensic experts to show that the autopsy report on the stillbirth had been inconclusive. They were both released because the Supreme Court saw “powerful reasons of justice and fairness” which warranted granting the grace of commuting their sentences. But their innocence hasn’t been recognized.

The law is still in force.  

Passed in 1998, the law bans abortion in all circumstances, even when the pregnancy poses a risk to a woman’s life or is the result of rape. On top of this, in 1999 the Constitution was amended to recognize the right to life from the moment of conception.

In the 20 years since the passing of this legislation many women have been punished. Between 2000 and 2011, El Salvador courts prosecuted 129 women for abortion-related crimes, and more than a third were convicted. Most of the women’s pregnancies had ended because of complications beyond their control, such as miscarriages, stillbirths or accidents.

Today, there are more than 25 women in prison serving sentences for homicide, after having been accused of procuring an abortion. In almost half of these cases, the crime was first identified as abortion related, but later changed to homicide. This has serious repercussions for women, as a homicide charge may carry a prison sentence of up to 40 years. 

Maira is the longest-serving. Three women have been released. But as recently as July 2017, 19-year-old Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez Cruz was sentenced to 30 years for murder after she had a stillbirth. She had been raped. 

As dire as the situation is, we believe there is hope. 

El Salvador is currently at a pivot point. El Salvador could soon vote to reform its abortion law. Two bills have been introduced to the Congress.  If enacted, women would be allowed to access safe and legal abortion services when pregnancy poses a risk to their health or life and in cases of rape and fatal fetal impairments. And, last week, on International Women’s Day, we saw over 3,000 women take to the streets of San Salvador to march in defense of their human rights. For a country with a total ban on abortion, this would mean huge progress.  

Advocacy and legal activists have been pushing for change. In 2014, a coalition of civil society organizations, led by the El Salvadoran civil rights group Agrupación Ciudadana and the Center for Reproductive Rights – launched the online campaign, “Las 17”, to call for the release of women like Teodora and Maira. Las17 has brought worldwide attention to the dire situation that is inflicted on many Salvadoran women.  

The Center for Reproductive Rights has also worked to expose the consequences that El Salvador’s blanket abortion ban has on the lives of women. The Center, together with Agrupación Ciudadana, filed two cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of Teodora, Maira, and Maria Teresa who are now free, and six other women who also had serious pregnancy complications and are still in prison due to the severe enforcement of El Salvador’s absolute abortion ban.  And, on behalf of Manuela, a Salvadoran woman wrongfully imprisoned after having an obstetric emergency and who later died from untreated Hodgkins lymphoma in prison.

There is still work to do to ensure abortion law reform is a reality in El Salvador and women’s reproductive rights are protected and respected, but this week, we celebrate Maira Figueroa’s life outside prison and are hopeful others like her will soon follow. 

Catalina Martínez Coral is regional director for Latin America & the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights

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