Salvadoran Woman Wrongfully Imprisoned Shares Her Story with U.N. Committee

(PRESS RELEASE) A Salvadoran woman who was wrongfully imprisoned after an obstetric emergency and later absolved and released in 2015 spoke to a United Nations committee about the mistreatment of pregnant women in El Salvador and the human rights abuses resulting from the country’s extreme abortion ban. 

Carmen Guadalupe Vasquez Aldana (“Guadalupe”) shared her story with the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)—the principal international human rights body charged with ensuring the realization of women’s rights in states across the globe. Her testimony is part of a review of El Salvador’s human rights record occurring this week in Geneva, Switzerland.

Prior to the CEDAW review, the Center for Reproductive Rights submitted a joint report with Agrupación Ciudadana and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP to CEDAW detailing how El Salvador’s total abortion ban is leading to discrimination against women by health professionals and law enforcement, and has resulted in the prosecution of more than 17 innocent women (“Las 17”) who are currently serving prison sentences of up to 40 years after suffering from pregnancy-related complications. 

Said Catalina Martínez Coral, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center:

“Guadalupe represented the women of El Salvador today, showing strength and courage before the U.N. Committee.

“No woman should ever be thrown behind bars after suffering from pregnancy complications, yet El Salvador’s extreme hostility towards abortion continues putting the health and lives of women at grave risk.

“The committee must now support Guadalupe by calling on El Salvador to right the wrongs for the remaining women who are wrongfully imprisoned and to pass legislation that decriminalizes abortion.”

For nearly 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. The ban has resulted in the 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.

In 2007, Guadalupe became pregnant after she was raped and months later she suffered an obstetric emergency, when she fell unconscious and had a stillbirth. She woke up in a hospital where she learned that medical staff reported her to the police on suspicion of obtaining an induced abortion. In February 2008 she was sentenced to 30 years in prison on charges of aggravated homicide. After the Center and Agrupación Ciudadana raised awareness in the local government and with the United Nations, Guadalupe was pardoned and freed in February 2015 after the Salvadoran Supreme Court found serious due process violations in her case.            

“I spoke today for Las 17 and in hopes that our stories will not be repeated in El Salvador,” said Guadalupe. “It’s time that my country end the persecution of pregnant women.”  

In October 2016, former president of the Salvadoran Congress, Lorena Peña introduced an amendment to the country’s penal code that, if passed, would decriminalize abortion in cases of rape and when a pregnancy puts the health or life of a woman at risk. The amendment received wide support from the Alliance for the Health and Life of Women (la Alianza por la Salud y la Vida de Las Mujeres)—a coalition of more than 30 human rights organizations and international human rights activists including Agrupación Ciudadana.

The Center for Reproductive Rights has worked to expose the consequences that El Salvador’s total abortion ban has on the lives of women. The Center together with the Agrupación Ciudadana filed a case in December 2015 before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights– a principal human rights body for the Americas—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.  

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 “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 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. And in May 2016, Maria Teresa was released after a judge ruled that there were violations of due process in her case. The remaining women are each currently serving 30-40 year sentences for crimes they never committed.

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. The report analyzes how El Salvador’s health, judicial, and prison systems fail to guarantee women’s human rights.

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