Evelyn Hernandez was 18-years-old when she was raped. She became pregnant as a result – always maintaining that she was unaware of her pregnancy. In April 2016, Hernandez gave birth to a stillborn in the latrine of her home in rural El Salvador. Leaving the baby’s body behind in the outhouse, Hernandez’s mother bundled her daughter up and swiftly took the girl to the hospital. The teenager was promptly arrested under suspicion of having an abortion – a charge that was later changed to aggravated homicide. While abortions are illegal in the Central American country, women also face imprisonment for miscarriages or stillbirths, which are considered to be possible homicides.
Hernandez served a 33-month prison sentence and was later released. Less than 2 years later, she was again brought to trial with an attempt to sentence her for 40 years. She was eventually acquitted, yet rumours are that the General Prosecutor is going to insist on retrying her again. Despite this, Hernandez represents a beacon of hope for many in a country where women remain heavily oppressed by religious and androcentric values. Countless women are still currently serving decades-long jail time for having miscarriages or stillbirths.
One such story emerged of Maricela Albizuri, who was instantly handcuffed to her hospital bed after having stillbirth in 2018. She was charged with aggravated homicide, and then forced to endure gynaecological exams in the presence of local police officers. Four days later, she was detained in prison and remanded from November 2018 to May 2019.
The American Bar stated, “Ms. Albizuri was charged with aggravated homicide after seeking urgent medical care in the wake of a home delivery and stillbirth. Although the San Salvador court ultimately dismissed the charges against her for lack of evidence, the investigation and prosecution of Ms. Albizuri is deeply troubling.”
The report also highlighted that the immediate detention and interrogation of a woman seeking urgent medical care in the wake of a traumatic incident – while in the presence of police investigators during private examinations – underscored the need for basic rights to health and dignity.
With some of the harshest legislation on abortion in the world, the law in El Salvador states that any abortion would be subject to penal inquiry and doctors are forced to break their confidentiality if they suspect a woman has obtained an abortion. Once she is accused, prosecutors can change the charges to aggravated homicide, which can result in 30 years in prison. The same goes for those who suffered miscarriages or stillbirths.
Catalina Martínez Coral, Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean for the Center for Reproductive Rights, has worked alongside Agrupación Ciudadana for women who have been sentenced through this procedure and to promote litigation, advocacy and communication actions to get them free. She has worked in El Salvador for almost 5 years – an experience she describes as sad, shocking, and rewarding.
“The first thing needed is a change in the legal code: we need the decriminalisation of abortion,” Coral said. “But that won’t be sufficient. There is a strong need for implementation once the law change is in place. That is why our work is not only concentrated in countries with total bans on abortion like El Salvador or Honduras but all over Latin America. It is also important to establish clear guidelines to access reproductive rights services in the country, as well as clear guidelines on professional secrecy. That way, doctors can do their job – to provide health services –and remain protected by the principle of confidentiality.”
As with the majority of Latin American countries, El Salvador is deeply entrenched in Christian ideologies. Both Evangelical and Catholic leaders consider abortion to be a sin, which has led to the creation of unique situations in which six countries of the continent have a total ban on abortion.
“It is important to say that the public opinion has changed in the last couple of years and media coverage of obstetric emergencies and abortion has changed dramatically,” Coral added. “For example, 12 years ago when Teodora, our client, was accused by the doctors of having an abortion, the media showed up to the hospital and depicted her as a baby murderer. As Evelyn faces a third trial, media has been sympathetic to her cause and the coverage has shown outrage against the prosecutors who won’t let her process to be finished.”
Worryingly, it is not just the women who could find themselves in precarious predicaments. Anyone – medical professional included – found to be assisting these women could also face prosecution.
The bleak reality remains that too many women are still being transferred directly from the hospital into prison cells. Often, like Hernandez, a lot of women find themselves in these circumstances after being victims of rape. Out of fear, many avoid seeking out medical attention, which can then cause major issues for their health and well-being.