Seventeen women, ages 19 to 30 years old at their sentencing, remain in prison in El Salvador as international pressure rises to exonerate them.
The women were all convicted on the charge of “aggravated homicide” of a newborn. At least one of them underwent a psychiatric evaluation and exhibited intellectual disabilities. Most of them suffered miscarriages, premature births or stillbirths; all of them were poor and without access to prenatal care or obstetrical services; and the majority of them have been sentenced to – and are serving – 30 years in prison.
According to Julia Evelyn Martínez, university professor of economics in El Salvador and social advocate, these women have been wrongly accused and convicted of the crime of murder.
“One needs to understand that all of these cases deal with women who have lived and continue to live in situations of extreme financial need, without social support networks or access to quality health services,” Martinez said. “Most of them had obstetrical problems during their pregnancies and suffered miscarriages or went through childbirth without either health or medical care. They arrived at public hospitals unconscious, bleeding, in search of assistance, at which point, in flagrant violation of professional ethics, they were reported, tried and sentenced, first for abortion and then for aggravated homicide, forcing them out of hospital and into prison.”
Martínez goes on to describe the legal maneuvering that led to these women’s convictions and is keeping them in prison.
“… These women are not accused of abortion, but of aggravated homicide, and therefore are not eligible for pardon. But what they disingenuously forget to say is that all of these women were first accused of abortion, and that in the process of their trial, prosecutors and/or judges made the decision to change the charge to aggravated homicide, in case the prosecution could not present convincing evidence that the deaths of these newborns were intentionally caused by the women.
Abortion is completely banned in El Salvador, no matter what the circumstances. The Constitution was modified in 1999 to include the recognition of life at the moment of conception. According to the Feminist Collective for Local Development in El Salvador (Colectiva Feminista para el desarrollo local de El SalvadorColectiva Feminista para el desarrollo local de El Salvador):
Presently – thanks to the powerful lobby of the Catholic Church, prolife groups and the conservative political right – Salvadoran lawmakers have eliminated all exceptions that would allow a woman to resort to an abortion. Article 133 of the Penal Code in force strenuously condemns any type of abortion. Under the current law, a person who carries out an abortion with the consent of the carrier or a woman who induces an abortion may be condemned to prison with sentences from 2 to 12 years.
Under the law, there is no legal separation between miscarriage or spontaneous abortion and abortion that is induced. So all types of pregnancy interruptions that result in the death of the fetus are potentially considered as homicides. Again from the Collective:
“In addition to the illegality of abortion is the lack of a clear legal definition of what is an abortion and/or pregnancy interruption. Spontaneous abortions and premature deliveries of advanced pregnancies that result in the death of the fetus are considered to have been provoked by the woman and are, therefore, homicides.”
In fact, there are many more women in prison for abortion than these 17. According to the Free the 17 Association (Plataforma Libertad para las 17), more than 125 women are imprisoned for that “crime,” serving sentences ranging from 11- 40 years.
But for these 17 women, the particulars of their cases and the fact that they were so egregiously mishandled in court should make them eligible for pardon, even under the country’s draconian antiabortion laws. The question remains whether the legal switch to accusations of murder can be overcome as well.
Libertad para las 17 and the Feminist Collective have spearheaded the campaign to release the women in El Salvador. In March, they presented a petition to the government requesting a pardon. They call their campaign, “A Flower for the 17” (Una flor por las 17).
Here is a biography of just one of the 17, provided by the Feministas organization in Spain:
From the outskirts of Morazan: When the incident occurred in 2001 she was 25 years old. She experienced learning difficulties at school and is illiterate. She had a convulsion when she was 16. According to a psychiatric evaluation that was performed, she exhibits some form of mental retardation.
She was accused without proof of being guilty of the death of the infant she was carrying. The autopsy clearly specified that the cause of the newborn’s death was undetermined and that it could not be verified whether it had been alive at the moment Mirian gave birth or whether it had already been dead. Because of her lack of financial resources, Mirian could not pay a lawyer and had a public defender who failed to assert the inconsistencies in the evidence.
Condemned to 30 years in prison, she has served 13 years. (6)
There is a petition asking John Kerry to call upon the Government of El Salvador for the release of the 17.