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Justice Undone

Under El Salvador’s extreme abortion ban, 17 women have been wrongfully criminalized and imprisoned. Take action to free them.

With one of the world’s most extreme abortion bans, El Salvador prohibits women from receiving an abortion under any circumstance—not in cases of rape or incest, not even to save their lives. Since 1998, dozens of women have been wrongfully criminalized and imprisoned under this law—even when the pregnancy ended due to natural causes. Take action today to pressure the Salvadoran government to release Las 17.

They come from small coastal villages, rural farms, and crowded cities. They are teenagers, wives, and mothers. They are seamstresses, maids, and factory workers.

Collectively, they have unjustly served over 130 years in prison.

They are Las 17—17 women who are currently held in prison cells across El Salvador. Their stories are varied, but with one overwhelming common thread: they have each been tried and imprisoned after experiencing traumatic pregnancy-related complications. Many have been convicted of murder and sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.

The following are just a few of their stories.

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Twenty-nine-year-old Teresa worked in a sweatshop in San Salvador and lived in a working-class neighborhood with her 8-year-old child.

In November 2011, without ever realizing she was pregnant, she went into early labor, giving birth in a toilet. The baby did not survive. Following this trauma, Teresa experienced heavy bleeding and eventually fainted. Her family summoned emergency services. At the hospital, she was reported to the police on suspicion of having induced an abortion.

Despite inconsistencies and lack of proof that Teresa performed an intentional act leading to the miscarriage, she was convicted of murder and condemned to 40 years in prison.

She’s been in prison for over two years. Teresa’s elderly grandmother is currently caring for her young child. 

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Mirian had learning difficulties in school and is illiterate. At age 25, living in the isolated town of Morazan, Mirian became pregnant and then experienced a miscarriage.

Although the autopsy was unable to determine the cause of the miscarriage, authorities accused Mirian of inducing an abortion.

She could not afford to pay a lawyer, and her public defender provided an inadequate legal defense. Charged with murder, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison, where she has remained for the last 13 years.

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When 21-year-old Alba found out she was pregnant with her third child, she and her mother together strategized ways to sustain Alba’s growing family. When her mom passed away a short while later, Alba was left alone to take care of her two children and her sister, who was ill.

One day, Alba went into early and intense labor at home and fainted while giving birth. When she came to, she sought help from a neighbor, who said that the baby breathed for a half hour but later stopped breathing. They held a vigil and prayed in a nearby house. The following morning, before burying the baby, they called the authorities to report the death.

While no proof exists that she did anything to cause the death of the baby, Alba was sentenced to 30 years in prison. So far, she has served more than four months, leaving no one to care for her two children and her sister.

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After 11 years in jail, Verónica is not yet halfway through her 30-year sentence. 

At age 19, while employed as a domestic worker, Verónica became pregnant. Shortly before reaching full term in her pregnancy, she experienced an obstetric emergency that resulted in a miscarriage.

Her employers took her to the Chalchuapa Hospital, where she was reported to the police. Without witnesses or any direct proof, Verónica was swiftly convicted of murder. Even the judgment acknowledges the lack of evidence and states, “the motives the subject had for committing [murder] are unknown although it can be deduced that her motivation was to avoid social reproach.”

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Even when a social worker described Mirna’s home as “stable, with support, respect, and responsibility,” the judges at her trial refused to believe either Mirna or her husband—when they said they were looking forward to having another child.

Thirty-six weeks into her pregnancy, Mirna went into sudden labor and gave birth in the toilet at her home. Her family quickly rushed her to the hospital. The baby had been hurt falling into the toilet, but fortunately survived.

Although the attending gynecologist confirmed that the baby’s injury was not due to attempted abortion, Mirna was sentenced to 12 years and 6 months in prison for attempted homicide.

She has served 11 years in prison, and was released after having fulfilled most of her sentence.

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Cinthia remembers that it was about 11:30 at night when the pain began. Eight months pregnant and only 17 years old, she was home alone. Realizing she was experiencing a rapid, early labor, she went out to the patio to give birth. The baby was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. She tried to cut it away with scissors, hurting the baby in her desperate effort to save its life.

Cinthia’s baby died, and she was charged with murder, despite the fact that no evidence was presented proving that she was the direct cause of the baby’s death or that the baby’s death was intentional.

She is six years into her 30-year sentence.

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There are almost a dozen more—Maritza, Salvadora, Ena, Guadalupe, Marina, Evelyn, Carmen, Mariana, Teodora, Johana, Maria—all with similarly haunting stories, similarly broken lives. Las 17 are the victims of a system so harsh it threatens the human rights of thousands of other women who live in fear of its reach.

The Center for Reproductive Rights and our partners La Agrupacion Ciudadana continue a relentless campaign to expose the severe violations of women rights as a consequence of El Salvador’s abortion ban—on the ground in El Salvador, in front of UN human rights bodies, before the Inter-American Court, and now to the U.S. State Department.

Take action today to pressure the Salvadoran government to release Las 17.