Abortion laws: The women jailed for suffering miscarriages

By Valeria Perasso and Fernando Duarte
BBC 100 Women

  • Published
KarenImage source, Courtesy of Jennifer Lacayo
Image caption,
Karen was sentenced to 30 years in prison in El Salvador in 2015 after being accused of having an abortion

When Karen woke up in an El Salvador hospital, she noticed that she was handcuffed to a bed and there were police officers by her bedside.

"There were a lot of people around and they were saying I had taken my baby's life and that I was going to 'pay for what I had done'," Karen tells BBC 100 Women.

She needed emergency care after suffering pregnancy complications. But Karen, who has 22 at the time, found herself accused of having an abortion.

"I tried to explain what had happened. But they didn't listen," she recalls.

"I had already been tried and sentenced there".

Harsh legislation

El Salvador, in Central America, has some of the world's harshest anti-abortion laws, which ban all kinds of terminations even if the pregnancy poses a risk to the mother's life or results from rape or incest.

Charged with aggravated homicide, Karen was sentenced to 30 years in prison. She became known as one of "Las 17", a group of women imprisoned after losing their babies in obstetric emergencies like miscarriages or stillbirths.

Karen spent six years behind bars before being released along with three other women in December 2021, following a campaign that drew support from international celebrities such as actors America Ferrera and Milla Jovovich.

At the time she was incarcerated, Karen was already the mother of a two-year-old boy. She wouldn't see him again until he was nine.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Karen and three other women were released from prison in December last year after years of campaigning by pro-choice activists

"When they said I would spend 30 years in prison, I felt my world was crumbling. I thought of my son and wondered if I would survive it all."

The Women's Equality Center, as US-based advocacy group that supports pro-choice campaigns across Latin America, says that at least 180 women have been prosecuted or jailed in the country over the last two decades under similar circumstances.

'I wanted to hold my dead son in my arms'

One of them was Cinthya, jailed in 2009 under aggravated homicide charges after her baby son died at home following an unexpected premature birth. She was released in 2019.

Cinthya told the BBC that instead of an ambulance, the police had responded to the emergency. She had passed out, and when she came round in hospital, like Karen, she found herself in handcuffs.

She was taken straight from the hospital to a police station cell before going on trial, without a chance to speak to relatives or even see the infant's body. She was 20 at the time.

"I wanted to hold my son in my arms, but I wasn't allowed to. They didn't give me permission to attend his funeral either," Cinthya recalls.

She says she was ostracised in jail and was physically attacked by other inmates for the nature of her 'crime'.

Image source, Courtesy of Cinthya
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Cinthya, who spent 10 years in prison under the abortion laws, claims she was attacked by other inmates because of her 'crime'

Karen says she faced the same experiences in court but was luckier in prison, as she found herself in the company of other women who had also been incarcerated under abortion charges.

"There were more than 10 of us and some of the women had endured abuse by other prisoners," she recalls.

"But then we formed a tight group to support each other."

Disproportionate impact

It is not possible to verify that all the imprisonment cases were involuntary pregnancy terminations, but campaigners say that the current legislation results in the prosecution of women who did not seek abortions.

Women's rights organisations in El Salvador add that the issue disproportionally affects women who do not have the economic resources for private healthcare.

Women like Karen and Cinthya.

"Poor women in El Salvador are the ones who suffer the most with legislation which stigmatises them and also drives many to clandestine abortions," Morena Herrera, a well-known Salvadorian pro-choice activist, explains.

"We need to free those imprisoned women, but we also need to put an end to their persecution."

Legal support for poorer women is also lacking, according to activists and the women affected.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
'Poor women suffer the most with legislation which stigmatises them,' says Morena Herrera, a leading pro-choice campaigner

Cinthya claims that at the time of her trial she was not allowed to speak in court. She also says that she was not visited or briefed on the case by a state-appointed lawyer while waiting in jail for her day in court.

She did not even know the exact charges against her.

"It was only in court that I found out I was being accused of aggravated homicide," she recalled.

The BBC asked the Salvadorian authorities to comment on these claims, but did not obtain a response.

According to a database compiled by US-based NGO Center for Reproduction Rights, El Salvador is one of seven Latin American countries which ban abortion outright.

Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Haiti, Dominican Republican and Surinam are the others (worldwide, the number of countries with outright bans is 24).

A weaker 'green wave'

In recent years, several Latin American nations (including Mexico, Argentina and Colombia) have adopted more liberal abortion legislation, following intense pressure from a range of activist movements dubbed the Green Wave.

"There has been greater mobilisation in more recent years, but the Green Wave movement has not arrived in El Salvador with the same strength as in other Latin American countries," Herrera observes.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The pro-choice movement know as Green Wave has successfully pushed for abortion law reforms in several Latin American countries, but is yet to achieve the same impact in El Salvador

El Salvador has considered legalising medically necessary abortions as part of a constitutional reform package, but plans were scuppered last September by a decision made by President Nayib Bukele.

President Bukele had previously defended such changes to the abortion law during his 2018 presidential campaign, however, saying that he was completely against criminalising women who suffered miscarriages.

Although polls have suggested that a majority of Salvadorians would support legalisation of abortion in cases of non viable pregnancies or when there is risk to the mother's health, there is strong resistance led by conservative politicians and religious leaders.

'It's a cycle that never seems to end'

As a result of Bukele's U-turn, women who suffer miscarriages can still be imprisoned in El Salvador. As recently as May this year, a woman who suffered a miscarriage, identified only as "Esme", was sentenced to 30 years in jail.

"Women like me keep being put in jail. It's a cycle that never seems to end," Cinthya says.

After being released, Cinthya struggled to find a job because of her criminal record, but with the aid of a grant from an NGO she manages to make a living selling clothes.

Image source, Courtesy of Cinthya
Image caption,
Since her release, Cinthya has given birth to a baby girl

In 2020, she gave birth to a baby girl, Marcela Elizabeth.

"I panicked when I got pregnant, fearing that I might go through all that again if there were complications," Cinthya says.

"But she was born healthy and without any problems. She is my happiness."

Karen says she still feels judged by society but is concentrating her efforts on finishing the secondary school studies that she started in prison, and reconnecting with her son.

She had feared that he would reject her after such a long separation, but found a really loving boy waiting for her when she finally did make it back home. Now Karen is focused on providing him with everything he needs.

However, her thoughts are never far from the women still in prison or others who could find themselves jailed for going through similar experiences.

For Karen, telling her story is a way to help those women.

"There are things that still hurt me that I will never forget. But talking about them may help to prevent other cases from happening and also helps my companions who are still behind bars," she says.

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