Salvadoran Court Releases Woman Wrongfully Imprisoned After Obstetric Emergency

Updated 2/15/18 4:30pm EST

(PRESS RELEASE) Following 11 years of wrongful imprisonment after suffering an obstetric emergency, the Salvadoran Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) and the Ministry of Justice and Public Safety commuted a Salvadoran woman’s sentence and released her today. In their decision, the court stated that ‘there are powerful reasons based on justice, equity, and legal concepts that justify favoring her with the grace of commutation.” Although she has been released, her conviction remains.

Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, 34, has been imprisoned since 2007 when she was sentenced to 30 years in prison—even though the autopsy of the stillbirth was inconclusive. In December of 2017, the San Salvador Second Tribunal of Sentence upheld her wrongful conviction after a request to review her sentence. Today, Teodora finally walks free and joins her family and 13-year-old son.

Teodora is one of more than 28 women who have been wrongfully imprisoned after suffering pregnancy-related complications in El Salvador. For two decades, 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.

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

“Teodora’s freedom is long overdue. Her story demonstrates how banning abortion in El Salvador results in the criminalization of women. 

The Salvadoran Court today finally affirmed that the sentence was unjust, excessive and disproportionate. Similar cases need to be carefully reviewed. 

“El Salvador must prioritize abortion law reform and release the remaining women wrongfully behind bars.”

In July 2007, Teodora was nine months pregnant and at work when she started feeling excruciating pain and called for medical assistance. Before help arrived, she started bleeding, lost consciousness and suffered a stillbirth. Police immediately suspected she tried to end the pregnancy. In its resolution, the court recognized that there is not enough scientific evidence to determine any voluntary actions that would have led to her stillbirth.

There were multiple due process violations in Teodora’s case, including a lack of adequate public defense.

El Salvador could soon vote to reform its abortion law. A proposed amendment to the penal code will be up for vote in the upcoming weeks within the Salvadoran Commission of Legislation and Constitutional Issues before it goes to the full Congress for further discussion and a final vote. If enacted, women would be allowed to access safe and legal abortion services when pregnancy posed a risk to their health or life and in cases of rape and fatal fetal impairments.

“The Center for Reproductive Rights will continue to shed light on the human rights violations caused by El Salvador’s abortion ban,” said Catalina Martinez Coral, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center. “We stand with our global and local partners and will not rest until abortion law reform is a reality and women’s reproductive rights are protected and respected.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights has worked to expose the consequences that El Salvador’s blanket abortion ban has on the lives of women. The Center, together with Agrupación Ciudadana, has filed two cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of nine women who had serious pregnancy complications and are now 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 later died from untreated Hodgkins lymphoma in prison.

In December 2014, a coalition of NGOs led by Agrupación Ciudadana and the Center for Reproductive Rights launched the “Las17” online campaign calling for the release of 17 Salvadoran women who all suffered obstetric emergencies, were accused of having illegal abortions and were later convicted of homicide. “Mirna,” one of “Las 17,” was released in December 2014 after serving her prison sentence before her pardon could be finalized. In February 2015, Guadalupe was successfully released and pardoned, after serving seven years in prison. In May 2016, Maria Teresa was released after a judge ruled that there were violations of due process in her case. And in February 2016 Sonia Tábora was pardoned and released. The remaining women are serving 30-40 years sentences for crimes they never committed.

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Correction: An earlier version of the release misstated the court order. The reason given by the court for Teodora's release is that there are "powerful reasons based on justice, equity, and legal concepts that justify favoring her with the grace of commutation,” not because there was insufficient scientific evidence to determine that she took any voluntary actions that would have led to a stillbirth.