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Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Holds Hearing On Wrongful Imprisonment of Salvadoran Women Who Miscarry

(PRESS RELEASE) Reproductive rights advocates testified today in Washington, D.C. about the human rights violations women in El Salvador suffer due to the country’s severe abortion ban, which has led to countless women with pregnancy complications being arrested on suspicion of an abortion and later imprisoned for decades on charges of homicide.

Today’s hearing was held by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – the main human rights body for the Americas—and included testimony from representatives from the Center for Reproductive Rights and Agrupación Ciudadana, as well as Cristina Quintanilla, a Salvadoran woman who had a miscarriage in 2004, was sentenced to 30 years in prison on charges of aggravated homicide, and was later released in 2008 after a judge determined there were violations of due process in her case.

For more than 16 years, El Salvador has criminalized abortion in all circumstances—even when necessary to save a woman’s life—imposing harsh criminal penalties on both women and physicians. The ban has resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of countless women who have suffered pregnancy-related complications and miscarriages, who are then charged for having an abortion and wrongfully convicted of homicide.

Said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights:

“For too long, El Salvador has ignored the human toll its total ban on abortion has had on countless women and their families—forcing pregnant women who miscarry to fear criminal prosecution when they seek emergency medical services.

“The fundamental rights of Cristina and all Salvadoran women are being cast aside by El Salvador’s refusal to recognize the consequences of this draconian law.

“We call on the Inter-American Commission to hold El Salvador accountable for the gross violations of the human rights of Cristina and every Salvadoran women who has been wrongfully imprisoned.”  

In December, a coalition of NGOs led by Agrupación Ciudadana and the Center for Reproductive Rights, launched the “Las17” online campaign calling for the release of “Guadalupe” and 16 other Salvadoran women who all suffered obstetric emergencies, were charged for having an abortion and were later convicted of homicide. “Mirna,” one of “Las 17” was released in December after serving her prison sentence before her pardon could be finalized. In February, Guadalupe was successfully released and pardoned, after serving seven years in prison. The remaining 15 women are each currently serving 30-40 year sentences.

“The Salvadoran government has to end this ongoing persecution of women due to this abortion ban,” said Angelica Maria Rivas, a lawyer with Agrupación Ciudadana. “We will continue fighting for the release of Las 17.”   

Cristina Quintanilla was pregnant for a second time in 2004. Eight months into her pregnancy she suffered a miscarriage in her home. After being rushed to the hospital for emergency medical care, an officer questioned her and later arrested her on suspicion of having an illegal abortion. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison on charges of aggravated homicide in 2005.

In prison, Cristina endured severe discrimination, as well as physical and verbal abuse. She slept in a cell with 84 other inmates and was subjected to cruel “cavity searches” that amounted to sexual assault, among other atrocities, during her time in prison. Two years into her sentence, she worked with an attorney to secure her release. They proved that a violation of her right to due process had occurred during her investigation and trial. The Salvadoran Supreme Court of Justice determined her sentence was excessive and reduced it to the prison time that she had already served. Cristina Quintanilla was released in August 2009, almost four years after entering prison.

“Because of El Salvador’s restrictive abortion laws, I suffered at the hospital and in prison—it affected my entire life and still does to this day,” said Cristina Quintanilla. “No other woman should suffer the way I and the rest of Las 17 have because of El Salvador’s abortion ban.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights has worked for more than 12 years to expose the consequences that the blanket abortion ban in El Salvador has on the lives of women. Recently, the Center and the Agrupación Ciudadana co-authored the report Marginalized, Persecuted and Imprisoned: The Effects of El Salvador’s Total Criminalization of Abortion that documents the human rights consequences of the abortion ban, and includes the personal stories of five women who were unfairly prosecuted for illegal abortion after suffering obstetric emergencies without receiving medical attention. The report analyzes how El Salvador’s health, judicial and prison systems fail to guarantee women’s human rights.

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