On July 13, 2007, Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, 24 years old and nine months pregnant, was working at a school in San Salvador. By 6 p.m., she had started to feel pain in her back and called for emergency services several times. Nobody came. Later, she ran to the restroom. After pulling down her pants, in her own words, “something dropped.” She fainted. In 2008, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated murder.
Abortion has been banned in all circumstances in El Salvador since 1998. It is one of the few countries left with such restrictive laws on the books—joined in shameful company by Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Malta, The Vatican and Andorra. Because of its draconian abortion laws, Teodora has spent the past 10 years and seven months condemned for a crime she did not commit. But last week, that changed.
On February 15, El Salvador’s Supreme Court of Justice commuted her sentence—declaring that “arguments of a legal nature, of justice and equity, justify her commutation.” Teodora can now walk free, but her fight—and the larger fight for reproductive freedom—is far from over. Technically, Teodora is still guilty under the law.
“The crime has not been pardoned,” her lawyer, Victor Hugo Mata, told Ms. “We [will] keep fighting to demonstrate her innocence.”
This was not the first time Teodora requested a revision of her case. In 2015, the Supreme Court agreed to consider her sentence as culpable homicide and reduced her time in prison from 30 years to 15. In 2017, the same judges who sentenced her in 2008 rejected her appeal. After serving 10 years—two-thirds of her sentence—she was let out of prison on parole. If there is a new trial, and if she wins, she would have the right to claim damages and eventually compensation for moral damages.
2.6 million babies are stillborn worldwide. For women in countries like El Salvador with highly restrictive abortion laws, that biological outcome of a pregnancy can become a prison sentence. Mata points directly to the intersection between an inefficient justice system and social class in cases like Teodora’s. “The judges are not critic, the prosecutor office does not investigate adequately, legal medicine does a poor job,” he told Ms. “Therefore, sometimes they arrive to conclusions that are very, very inaccurate. Probably this is because these cases only happen with poor, rural women, who do not have a good lawyer, but a public defender.” (Amnesty International is helping to cover Teodora’s legal costs.)
Morena Herrera, executive director at Citizens Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, believes the latest decision in Teodora’s case provides hope for a path forward—and for other women afraid to suffer the same fate. “It can be a way we may follow in the future,” she explained to Ms., “to gain their freedom back.” In 2014, Citizens Group requested pardons for a group known as “Las 17,” a group of 17 women, including Teodora, serving time due to miscarriages. Only two pardons were given. This group was later renamed “Las 17 y más“—the 17 and more.
“Teodora’s freedom is long overdue,” Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement to The Guardian. “The court finally affirmed that the sentence was unjust, excessive and disproportionate. El Salvador must prioritize abortion law reform and release the remaining women wrongfully behind bars.”
Right now, at least 28 women are serving up to 40-year prison sentences in El Salvador. In 2009, Citizens Group helped Isabel Cristina Quintanilla reduce her penalty from 30 years to three. Under the representation of Mata, Teodora and four other women were freed—including Beatriz, a woman with lupus who was denied an abortion even when the fetus had no chance of survival. CRR has filed a case on behalf of another Salvadoran woman imprisoned after an obstetric emergency who later died from untreated medical complications in prison with the Inter-American Commission.
Two laws in favor of depenalizing abortion in certain cases are being considered in El Salvador—as is one in favor of hardening the penalties women like Teodora face to up to 50 years of prison, matching abortion to aggravated homicide. Right now, women can be condemned to two to eight years in prison for abortion, but it is not unusual for women in these cases to instead be tried for aggravated homicide.
“There is much fight ahead,” Herrera told Ms. “but there is progress, and I believe it is possible that the law changes soon.”
Mata shows less optimism. “There is the impression that the right-wing may eventually support abortion when a woman’s health is in danger because the international pressure is very strong,” he explained, “but not the other cases.” In February of last year, the Ministry of Health requested the Legislative Assembly to review abortion laws in four very specific types of cases, including fetal abnormalities and pregnancies resulting from rape. A year later, El Salvador’s full ban on abortion still stands.
There are no official abortion statistics in El Salvador, though some estimations calculate about 35,000 abortions per year. According to the Health Ministry, between 2005 and 2008 there were 19,290 miscarriages, but the real number could be much higher. 11 percent of women and girls having clandestine abortions in El Salvador die.