Anti-abortion laws are tearing families apart in El Salvador
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Anti-abortion laws are tearing families apart in El Salvador

María Teresa Rivera has only seen her young son four times since 2011 after she was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the crime of suffering a miscarriage.

El Salvador’s extreme anti-abortion laws mean that women who experience miscarriage and other complications are being criminalized and their families torn apart.

A new report by Amnesty International reveals the devastating impact that the country’s anti-abortion laws are having upon the lives of women and their children.

Published on Monday (November 30), the report exposes how women who have had miscarriages or have experienced other obstetric complications are being locked behind bars and prevented from seeing their children.

Completely illegal

There is a total ban on abortion in El Salvador. A law passed in the country in 1998 means that abortion is illegal under any circumstances, even in the case of rape or where the mother’s live is endangered.

This law, says Amnesty International, is leading to situations where women, like María Teresa, are assumed guilty and wrongfully prosecuted.

The 32-year-old mother was found bleeding and unconscious by her mother-in-law who took her to a hospital for treatment.  Hospital staff notified police and she was arrested, accused of having an abortion.  At her trial, one of María Teresa’s bosses testified that she was pregnant in January 2011, meaning that at the time of her miscarriage María Teresa would have been 11 months pregnant.  Amnesty says that this “outrageous testimony” was one of the contributing factors leading to her conviction.

María Teresa’s sentence is not only devastating for her, but for her entire family.

A devastating outcome

“Each time authorities in El Salvador unfairly lock up a woman for having a miscarriage or suffering pregnancy related complications, they are also condemning her children to a life of poverty and trauma,” Astrid Valencia, Central America researcher at Amnesty International, said in a press release.

María Teresa’s 10-year-old son is struggling to come to terms with the fact that he can seldom see his own mother.

“The first time that the boy saw her was hard. He was crying and hugging her, and did not want to leave the prison. I said, ‘let’s go, your mom can’t leave’. He cried on the bus. I stopped taking the child for a while, because I said, ‘he gets really sad, and so does she’. Then when he got a bit older, I took him again,” María Teresa´s mother-in-law, told Amnesty International.

This case, however, is far from isolated. According to the report, there are at least 19 women in jail serving lengthy sentences after being convicted of homicide on insubstantial evidence in a context similar to that of María Teresa’s.

Not alone

Another case is that of Teodora del Carmen Vásquez. In 2008, Teodora was sentenced to 30 years in prison after giving her birth to stillborn child in a bathroom at her workplace. Like María Teresa, she was charged with and convicted of “aggravated homicide,” and now her 11-year-old son rarely sees her.

The effect of these sentences upon women and their families, however, is not just emotional and psychological.

Women are often the family’s main breadwinner, and their incarceration means that their families suffer financial hardship.

Teodora, for example, had been contributing to her family’s finances with her income as a domestic worker since she was 17-years-old.  Her family’s lack of resources, which have worsened since Teodora was jailed, also means that the family have been unable to pay for a good legal defence.

“It costs us (going to the prison])because my husband no longer earns a salary….Sometimes we barely have enough money to eat,” Teodora’s’ mother told Amnesty International.

The international human rights organization says it is deplorable that the families of women who have been “unjustly imprisoned should suffer the consequences of prison sentences that are the result of human rights violations.”

It is urging the El Salvadoran government to appeal laws which criminalise abortion and immediately release all women and girls incarcerated for having an abortion or experiencing obstetric emergencies, such as stillbirths and miscarriages.

See also:

In El Salvador, abortion law turns pregnant women into criminals