Cruel Discrimination: No Justice for Miscarrying Salvadoran Women

by Joy Mulhollan

Pregnant women and girls in El Salvador don’t stand a chance if they’re at risk for a miscarriage or stillbirth. Especially in rural areas, women who are already in a precarious physical situation run the risk of being imprisoned due to no fault of their own. The cause is the extremely strict anti-abortion law that persists throughout the country. All abortion is illegal, regardless of the health of the mother, viability of the fetus, rape, or incest. Hospitals are no help, either. When women arrive at the public medical centers in severe pain and in the midst of a miscarriage, neither the benefit of the doubt nor even the woman’s truthful cries of exasperation are considered. The hospitals do not provide any sense of privacy for their patients and immediately alert the police. This makes seeking medical treatment during an at-risk pregnancy nothing short of a gamble. The question, “Is medical assistance worth the risk of potentially being sent to prison?” comes into play, when it really shouldn’t be a proposition on the table. Not only is the law unjust, but according to Esther Major, Amnesty International’s El Salvador expert, it is also “cruel and discriminatory.”

The first problem is with the law itself, but even setting that aside, a second problem arises when it comes to the implementation and execution of the law. The criminal justice system in El Salvador assumes the guilt of these women, whether or not they had an abortion, miscarriage, or stillbirth. There is no attention paid to either the testimony of the woman or medical evidence. Major also says, “Women and girls end up in prison for being…simply tragically unable to carry the pregnancy to term.” Out of an effort to save face and prove a hardline stance on abortion, these women are being unjustly imprisoned by El Salvador’s criminal justice system.

For example, Glenda Xiomara Cruz entered a hospital for treatment for a miscarriage. Four days later she was charged with aggravated murder, implying that she intentionally caused harm to the fetus. Although the prosecution wanted to sentence her with forty years, the judge only mandated ten years, stating that she should have done something to save the baby’s life. A woman known by her first name, Beatriz, presents another interesting case. Pregnant and suffering from lupus, she petitioned the government to allow her to have an abortion seeing as her health was rapidly deteriorating and that the fetus suffered severe malformations and would not survive outside the womb. Twenty-two years old, Beatriz gave birth at 27 weeks. The baby survived for but a few hours. When the justice system assumes guilt, it does not provide for the women who are indeed telling the truth regarding the terminations of their pregnancies. Innocent women are caught in the crossfire, injustice indiscriminately thrown down by the courts.

There is one lawyer, however, who has chosen to represent 29 out of the 49 women convicted of abortion in 2011. Of Dennis Munoz Estanley’s 29 clients, 28 miscarried and have been run over by the justice system. Even though the international community attempted to intervene and condemned the judge’s actions during the case of Beatriz, it appears that justice for women who miscarry in El Salvador will not be a reality until the anti-abortion law is amended.