19-year-old rape victim Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez Cruz was sentenced to 30 years in prison in El Salvador last week for having a stillbirth.
Hernandez, who was an 18-year-old high school student at the time of her stillbirth, became pregnant after she had been forced into a relationship with and repeatedly raped by a gang member over the course of several months. Unaware that she was pregnant, she did not realize that the acute stomach and back pains she experienced in her third trimester indicated that she had gone into labor. She gave birth into a toilet in her rural Cuscatlán home, after which her mother took her to the hospital with severe abdominal pain.
In the hospital, Hernandez was detained by police who had found the fetus in the toilet. She was handcuffed to her hospital bed for a week while being treated for a urinary tract infection and anemia.
Prosecutors accused Hernandez of avoiding prenatal care to harm the fetus, despite the fact that Hernandez insisted that she did not even realize she was giving birth at the time of the stillbirth. Even though medical experts cannot determine if the fetus died in utero or after birth—which prosecutors clearly acknowledged—the judge still sided with the prosecution in asserting that Hernandez had intended to kill the fetus and convicted Hernandez on the grounds that her failure to seek antenatal care amounted to murder. In a case that illustrates the severity with which El Salvador’s total abortion ban hurts pregnant women, the tragic details of Hernandez’s situation were dismissed by the prosecution and disbelieved by the judge. The judge also went on to accuse the convict’s mother of aiding and abetting her crime.
Reacting to the gross distortion of Hernandez’s situation by the prosecution, several organizations have denounced the ruling and called for the appeal of El Salvador’s abortion ban, including Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion. “The judgment sentencing Evelyn to 30 years in prison shows how in El Salvador justice is applied without direct proof, without sufficient evidence that clarifies what a woman has done,” said the Citizen’s Group’s executive director Morena Herrera.
Hernandez’s lawyers intend to appeal the decision. “We think it’s important that this injustice is known in El Salvador–that because of a prejudice, for being a woman, for having a stillbirth that she didn’t have control over–she was convicted,” said Dennis Muñoz, Hernandez’s defense lawyer.
Enacted in 1998, El Salvador’s anti-abortion law bans abortion in all circumstances and has no exceptions for cases of sexual violence or incest, even when the pregnancy threatens the woman’s life. If found guilty, a woman can be sentenced to anywhere between eight to 40 years in prison.
El Salvador is one of five countries with a complete abortion ban in effect. The stringency of this ban often serves as the springboard from which women can be unjustly prosecuted for obstetric emergencies that result in miscarriages or stillbirths. “Trying to prove that a woman didn’t do anything wrong to terminate her pregnancy is extremely difficult,” Paula Avila-Guillen of the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) told Broadly, “and in most circumstances the women are poor—they didn’t have access to education, they didn’t have access to maternal healthcare to begin with—so they are already in a vulnerable situation.”
Hernandez is just one of many women who have been targeted in such a manner and sentenced to decades in prison as a result of the law. According to the CRR, 129 Salvadoran women were prosecuted for abortion-related crimes between 2000 and 2011. The Alliance for Women’s Health and Life based in El Salvador recorded at least 147 cases where women were charged under the abortion law between 2000 and 2014.
Activists have pushed back on the convictions of 17 women—a group known as “Las 17”—who were sentenced, in some cases, to 40 years in prison for “purposeful miscarriages” and other abortion charges. The Citizen’s Group launched a campaign in 2014 to seek clemency for these women, and several have since been freed. Maria Teresa Rivera, who was was given a 40 year sentence under the law in 2011 for “aggravated homicide,” also claims she misunderstood her pregnancy as stomach pains and later gave birth to a stillborn in the latrine. Rivera was released in 2016 after serving term for four-and-a-half years. While these legal fights have continued, at least five more women, including Hernandez, have been imprisoned for abortion-related charges in El Salvador.
Activists hope that El Salvador’s abortion ban will be amended in order to protect women like Hernandez from suffering injustice at the hands of a biased judicial system. A bill has been introduced in the Legislative Assembly that would decriminalize abortion in four cases: if the pregnancy endangers the woman’s health, if there is a medical diagnosis that the fetus cannot survive, if the pregnancy results from human trafficking-related sexual violence or if the pregnancy results from the rape and abuse of a minor who has parental consent. The bill has not yet moved past the legislative committee.
According to Sara García, a women’s rights advocate from Colectivo Feminista in El Salvador, over 25,000 women become pregnant each year from rape. Women—largely poor, uneducated women—are unjustly imprisoned as a result of the severity of the abortion ban and the biased judicial system that enforces it.
Unsafe abortions have become one of the leading causes of maternal mortality in Central America. These laws force women to become victims of unwanted pregnancies, mental health problems and septic shock or perforation of internal organs. What’s more, Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest regional rate of unsafe abortions per capita in the world—with 31 in every 1000 women facing severe risks. The WHO tallies up the numbers to 4.2 million hazardous abortions per year.
Hernandez’s case exemplifies the injustice of El Salvador’s abortion ban and serves as a call for change in the country. “El Salvador’s anti-abortion law is causing nothing but pain and suffering to countless women and girls and their families,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas Director. “It goes against human rights, and it has no place in the country or anywhere.”