Justice In El Salvador (Las 17)

El Salvador: Free the Women Behind Bars for Pregnancy Complications

El Salvador’s draconian abortion law prevents women from accessing abortion under any circumstance—not even in cases of rape or incest or to save a woman’s life. Dozens of women are behind bars, some sentenced to up to 40 years in prison, for suffering miscarriages, stillbirths, and other pregnancy-related complications.

None of these women received fair trials. Their legal and human rights were flagrantly disregarded by the Salvadoran government.

The Center for Reproductive Rights has worked to expose the consequences of El Salvador’s abortion ban. Together with our partner Agrupación Ciudadana, we have filed two cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of nine women who had serious pregnancy complications and were wrongfully imprisoned. The petition shows that the women suffered multiple due process violations in their cases, and also argues that women’s rights to personal integrity, health, private and family life, freedom from gender violence, equality before the law and non-discrimination were violated.

We have successfully fought to free three of these nine women—and we won’t stop fighting until they have all been freed and women across El Salvador need not fear imprisonment if something goes wrong with their pregnancies.

Maira Veronica Figueroa

Maira spent 15 years behind bars after suffering a miscarriage. At 19, she was raped and became pregnant. Before reaching full term, she experienced complications with her pregnancy. Without any witnesses or direct proof, she was wrongfully accused of intentionally ending her pregnancy under El Salvador’s harsh abortion law and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Today, the Salvadoran government commuted her sentence and she is free.

Teodora del Carmen Vasquez

Teodora was released after 11 years in prison. She was accused of intentionally ending her pregnancy after she suffered a stillbirth and was convicted of aggravated homicide. Unable to afford adequate legal counsel, Teodora was sentenced to 30 years in prison, leaving her three-year-old son behind.

Despite a lack of scientific evidence, Teodora was denied justice and freedom when a court reviewed her sentence in December 2017. The Salvadoran Supreme Court commuted her sentence and she was released in February 2018.

Teodora is finally free and reunited with her family and 13-year-old son.

Maria Teresa Rivera

In November 2011, without ever realizing she was pregnant, Maria Teresa went into early labor, experiencing heavy bleeding and giving birth in a public restroom. Her family called emergency services and at the hospital the police were called on the suspicion that she induced an abortion. She was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Maria Teresa spent almost five years in prison under harsh conditions, but we successfully fought to free her, along with three other members of Las 17, and she was released in May 2016.

Now, Maria Teresa is advocating for the remaining members of Las 17 waiting to be freed and says that “what motivates me is their injustice.”

Johana Iris Rosa Gutierrez

Johana slipped and fell to the floor one morning causing excruciating stomach pain and profuse bleeding. Soon after entering the latrine, Johanna delivered the baby, went into shock and lost consciousness. Her mother found her and called for medical help—but instead, Johanna and her baby were separated, and she was arrested.

Johana was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “attempted aggravated homicide” on April 2, 2008, leaving behind two children in the care of her mother. She will be in prison until 2023.

Ena Vinda Munguia

Ena had an out-of-hospital birth in September 2009. She passed out and awoke in the hospital where staff didn’t allowed her to see her baby and police interrogated her.

Even though her baby survived and there was no proof she attempted an abortion, Ena was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “attempted aggravated murder” on April 15, 2010. Ena’s child is about to start pre-school and only sees her during prison visits. She will be in prison until 2025.

Maria Marina Perez

On April 3, 2001, at about 18 weeks of pregnancy, Marina had an obstetric emergency and miscarried. She buried the fetus afterwards and was overwhelmed with grief.

Although no evidence could prove whether the fetus had been born alive, Maria Marina was arrested and spent months in pretrial detention without an attorney. She was eventually sentenced to 30 years for aggravated homicide by a three-judge panel on June 8, 2002, even though one of the judges dissented because of evidentiary issues. Marina will be in prison until 2032.

Alba Lorena Rodriguez

Alba went into early labor at home and fainted while giving birth in December 2009. The baby stopped breathing after a half hour, a vigil was held, and Alba was eventually hospitalized.

While in and out of consciousness, she was interrogated by police officers—and although the police report said she read and understood her rights, Alba is illiterate and did not have access to an attorney during the interrogation.

While no proof exists that she did anything to cause the death of the baby, Alba was sentenced to 30 years in prison on July 15, 2010 for aggravated homicide. She will be in prison until 2040.

Maritza de Jesus Gonzalez

In October 2008, Martiza had an obstetric emergency in the presence of her mother-in-law and sister. After calling for medical assistance, Maritza was instead taken into custody by the police, who accused her of causing the death of her baby. No one read Maritza her rights or made clear what was happening when she was detained. The police concluded that the baby’s impairments were due to contusions and arrested Maritza.

An expert witness testified in her case stating that the baby had severe fetal impairments, not contusions, but Maritza was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide on June 10, 2009. She will be in prison until 2039.

Maria del Carmen Garcia

Maria was a live-in maid for a prominent family. On October 30, 2009, early in the morning, Maria had an obstetric emergency and miscarried in the kitchen of her employers, who claimed she tried to end the pregnancy and called the police to report her.

Maria was taken to the hospital where she was interrogated by police, and was arrested the same day, still in her hospital bed. The court did not ask for her medical records nor obtain the results from the forensic psychologist, and they did not accept testimony in Maria’s defense—all violations of due process in her case.

Maria was sentenced to 25 years in prison for aggravated homicide on June 15, 2000 and will be in prison until 2025.