Home » These Women Say Their Babies Were Stillborn. Courts Convicted Them of Homicide in a Country With Harsh Abortion Laws
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These Women Say Their Babies Were Stillborn. Courts Convicted Them of Homicide in a Country With Harsh Abortion Laws

A sign greets visitors arriving at a sun-filled two-story house in El Salvador’s capital.

“You must enter smiling,” it says. “Before you come in, you will find an invisible bag where you can leave your sorrows. When you leave, you can decide whether to take them with you.”

Teodora Vásquez knows the women seeking shelter, support or a fresh start here often have decades of sorrows weighing on them. And she’s propped up this sign beside a green plastic turtle near the front door as a first step toward the healing she hopes they’ll start to find within these walls.

It’s been 25 years since El Salvador made abortion illegal in all circumstances, eliminating any exceptions. And it’s been nearly as long since lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment declaring that life begins at conception.

Vásquez was among more than 180 women who advocates say were unjustly convicted of crimes after suffering obstetric emergencies, including miscarriages and stillbirths, in the years since the revised penal code and constitutional amendment went into effect. Activists warn that these women’s experiences show how dangerously far criminalizing abortion can go.

Vásquez was convicted of aggravated homicide and imprisoned for more than 10 years before El Salvador’s Supreme Court commuted her 30-year sentence in 2018.

The overcrowded Ilopango women’s prison where she lived for over a decade seems like a world away from the airy garden courtyard Vásquez points out as she gives a tour of her home via Zoom.

But she says the experiences she endured behind bars — and how important it is to help others who’ve gone through the same thing — are never far from her mind.

This house isn’t just where Vásquez lives. It’s also the headquarters of Mujeres Libres El Salvador, an organization she founded.

The group’s name means “free women” in Spanish. And legally speaking, that’s exactly what Vásquez and the four other people who live here are. So, too, are the dozens of other women who’ve traveled hours to spend their weekends attending workshops here.

Like Vásquez, in the last few years, courts have ordered their release from prison. But since then, there’s another kind of freedom that’s been harder to come by.

“We’ve been living through a double conviction. First, the one the judge gave us,” Vásquez says, “then the one society gave us. And we call that a life sentence. Because from the moment you entered prison, for your entire life, you are going to have this. … You are going to die and they are going to remember you because you were a prisoner.”

In recent years, the cases of Vásquez and other women have spurred global protests, appeals from the UN’s top human rights official and attention from Hollywood stars.

But as recently as 2021, Salvadoran lawmakers voted to uphold the country’s abortion prohibitions. And within the socially conservative country, the ban is popular among many Catholic and evangelical Salvadorans.

That, Vásquez says, is one reason why she and other women keep retelling the stories they wish they could forget. Now, as part of Mujeres Libres, Vásquez says they aren’t just trying to heal themselves. They have a much larger goal, too.

“We want to make sure our history doesn’t repeat itself in future generations,” she says.

‘The extreme injustice jumps off the page’

The sharp pain hit Vásquez suddenly at the school café where she worked in July 2007. She was nine months pregnant at the time. She already had a young son, and Vásquez says she was looking forward to giving birth to a baby girl.

“I wanted my daughter. I had bought clothes for her,” Vásquez says.

As the pain intensified, she called 911 multiple times asking for help. Vásquez says the help she needed never came.

She says she fainted in a bathroom and was unconscious when she gave birth.

“When she regained consciousness, she was bleeding profusely and the baby was dead,” Amnesty International said in a 2016 summary of her case.

When police finally arrived, they took her into custody.

Vásquez says that initially she, like others, was accused of having an abortion.

“Then they changed the classification to aggravated homicide,” she says. “That means that, to the Salvadoran state, our children were born alive and we killed them.”

In January 2008, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Vásquez’s case and others like it caught the attention of Jocelyn Viterna, a professor of sociology and chair of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University who has spent decades studying the impact of abortion restrictions in El Salvador.

“Once you start looking into these cases, the extreme injustice jumps off the page,” Viterna says. “These women had not done anything to break the law, and yet at every step the legal system was set up to prosecute them.”

Many cases, Viterna says, involve impoverished women who were alone when they went into labor, and whose babies were either stillborn or died shortly after birth due to circumstances beyond their control. Subsequent autopsies, Viterna says, often relied on the so-called “lung float test,” a controversial method for investigating allegations of infanticide that dates back to the 17th century and has been discredited by many medical experts.

Advocates in the United States warn that the Salvadoran women’s cases are a telling example of the kinds of prosecutions they fear will intensify in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling overturning the federal constitutional right to an abortion.

“That is just so dangerous,” says Dana Sussman, deputy executive director of Pregnancy Justice, a New York-based organization that defends people in the US facing criminal charges for pregnancy outcomes. “The idea that you could use forensics that are pseudoscience to convict women in these tragic cases is really, really concerning.”

Some of them met behind bars

It took time for the women to find each other inside the prison where many of them were held.

The crime they were convicted of — killing their babies — carried such a stigma that they dared not mention it aloud. Those who did were beaten by fellow inmates.

“We were already friends, but nobody was talking about our cases,” Vásquez says in “Fly So Far,” a 2021 documentary that follows her story.

It was only after a group of human rights lawyers met with them together that they realized the connections their cases shared. As advocacy groups mounted protests calling for their freedom, the documentary details how the group of detained women nominated Vásquez to be their spokesperson.

And as she fought for own conviction to be overturned, she also spoke out about the others’ plight.

“I have rarely been as moved as I was by their stories and the cruelty they have endured,” then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said after meeting Vásquez and several other women in 2017. “It only seems to be women from poor and humble backgrounds who are jailed, a telling feature of the injustice suffered.”

The UN official called for authorities to review the cases.

But within El Salvador, a largely Catholic and evangelical Christian country, some viewed the women’s accounts with skepticism and hostility.

As international pressure mounted, the then-head of El Salvador’s Institute of Legal Medicine told reporters that the women, who became widely known as “The 17,” were in prison because they were accused of infanticide, not obstetric emergencies or abortions — a point he reiterated in a recent interview with CNN.

Dr. José Miguel Fortín Magaña, a psychiatrist who resigned from his post directing the institute in 2015, says he stands by the scientific analysis in autopsies his staff conducted. Critiques of the testing used, he says, fail to take into account that additional analysis was done.

“These cases became emblematic because it got political. And when something becomes political the truth is no longer sought after,” he told CNN.

A month after Vásquez met with the UN’s top human rights official in 2017, an appeals court in El Salvador upheld her conviction. Again, the UN’s human rights office weighed in, calling El Salvador’s laws “draconian.”

Two months later, 11 justices from El Salvador’s Supreme Court commuted Vásquez’s sentence, saying evidence in the case did not prove that she had taken any action to end her baby’s life.

She was released in February 2018 after more than 10 years behind bars. A crowd of cheering supporters awaited her outside the prison gates. Her parents and her then-teenage son stood among them, waiting to embrace her.

But even after winning her hard-fought release, finding true freedom was harder than she expected.

A search for support led to a surprising realization

Vásquez only had a third-grade education when she entered prison. During her years behind bars, she devoted herself to education, earning her high school diploma. But she says she quickly realized the years of classes she’d taken in prison weren’t enough to help her find her footing once she was released.

“I didn’t even know how to use a computer,” she says.

Vásquez signed up for a computer course and enrolled in college soon afterward. But she says she still found it hard to reenter society.

“I started to think, if I’m dealing with this, how are the women who were released before me?” Vásquez says. “What have they done to make it?”

Vásquez started searching for them to find out. Months after her release from prison, she brought together 16 women and began interviewing them about their experiences. She was surprised to learn that many were struggling even years after their release.

Some were shunned by their families. Many couldn’t find jobs because of their criminal records.

“They started to tell me about very difficult situations, and some of these women had already been out of prison for eight years. And I said to myself, ‘Let’s do something. Let’s change this reality, not just for us, but for all the other women who are going to come out of prison,’” Vásquez recalls.

And from there, she says, the idea of Mujeres Libres was born.

As she walks the halls of the group’s headquarters in San Salvador and shows the space to CNN during a Zoom interview, Vásquez points proudly to rooms with bright blue bunk beds. For some who are originally from more rural parts of the country, the house is a temporary stopping point when they’re in town for appointments. For others, it’s a place to live so they can work in the city, where jobs are more plentiful.

During the week, the house is quiet and calm, but on weekends Vásquez says it’s a hive of activity. Women travel hours from different parts of the country for counseling sessions and workshops on topics like playwriting and women’s rights.

With each passing year, the number of potential members seems to grow.

Since 2009, more than 60 women who were prosecuted after suffering obstetric emergencies have been released, according to the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion in El Salvador.

“I’ve been learning to open up,” says 35-year-old Jacqueline Castillo, who says she was wrongfully convicted of attempted homicide after her baby was born in a latrine during an obstetric emergency. “It’s helped me be able to let go of some things.”

Castillo, who was released from prison last year after serving more than 10 years of her 15-year sentence, says she’s been taking computer classes at the Mujeres Libres house, and also gaining confidence to start making plans for her future. She’s a domestic worker now but hopes one day to start her own restaurant.

“It’s very beautiful, because you can let go of things and concentrate, and then you now have something else in your mind, something positive,” she says. “You can learn something, and then you can share it with someone else.”

The women are students. They also see themselves as teachers

Jocelyn Viterna points at an anatomy chart on her computer screen as Vásquez and other members of Mujeres Libres look on.

The Harvard professor has been studying these women’s cases and the impact of El Salvador’s abortion restrictions for years. But on Wednesday evenings this fall, she’s serving in another role: their teacher.

At the request of Vásquez and other members of Mujeres Libres, Viterna is leading a weekly Zoom course about gender, sexuality and reproductive health.

Today’s lessons: the anatomy of the female sexual and reproductive system, followed by explanations of how this anatomy connects with sexual pleasure.

“What do you think?” Viterna asks the class as she concludes her presentation. “Why do you think so many people see it as shameful to talk about this?”

Vásquez is the first to raise her hand with an answer. “I think it has a lot to do with our culture, and what our parents teach us,” she says.

Today Vásquez and the other women are students. But soon they hope to be teaching these kinds of lessons, too, as they travel around the country and speak with Salvadoran youth in a series of presentations scheduled to begin next month.

The group plans to screen the documentary about their experiences, perform a play and lead discussion sessions.

Vásquez says she’s already seen signs of a shift in El Salvador. Fewer women who have obstetric emergencies are being prosecuted, she says, after a 2021 Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling ordered the government to grant professional secrecy protections to doctors. That change means doctors are no longer required to report possible abortion attempts. Human rights groups had argued that medical personnel previously felt pressured to report patients fearing that they would be charged or sanctioned themselves.

Advocates also hope another case pending before the court could clear the way for legalizing abortion in some instances in El Salvador and other Latin American countries that criminalize it.

But even if El Salvador’s laws change tomorrow, Vásquez says there’s still more work to do.

She sees a clear connection between the rarity of lessons like the ones Viterna is teaching them and the decisions that sent her and so many others to prison.

“We have to start educating the population, because that is how people are sensitized and how they take action and we get rid of ignorance,” she says. “And that is how things will change.”

From prisoners to ‘women of steel’

Vásquez knows not everyone will welcome their message. Last year, she says, anti-abortion protesters tried to block screenings of the documentary about the group. The protest campaign spurred a flood of threats after her contact information was leaked online, she says.

“They kept saying they were going to report me so that I would shut up,” Vásquez says.

But Vásquez says she’s determined to keep speaking out.

Why spend so much time talking about a painful part of her past? And why take the risks more public exposure could bring?

“We aren’t doing this for ourselves,” Vásquez says. “What more can happen to us?  We already went to prison. We already paid for crimes that we didn’t commit. We are here, but sincerely we are doing this because we want at least the youth of future generations to have better lives.”

As part of this year’s upcoming speaking tour, the group will be performing a play they’ve written dispelling myths around menstruation.

Vásquez is excited to see how audiences respond. She’s already seen first-hand how transformative taking the stage can be.

Last year they put on another play, “Mujeres de Acero,” Spanish for “Women of Steel.” Vásquez tears up whenever she watches a video of the performance, which ends with the women waving scarves to mimic butterflies’ wings fluttering as they circle the stage.

She and the other women, she says, have found strength in each other and made a space for themselves.

That, Vásquez says, is true freedom — the kind that no one can take away.

Source : CNN