By: Karina Johnson
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — On Wednesday, December 13, San Salvador’s Second Court of Judgment in El Salvador upheld Teodora del Carmen Vasquez’s 30-year sentence for aggravated homicide against her unborn child.

Teodora Vasquez is escorted to her hearing to appeal her 2008 conviction for the death of her stillborn child. Photo Courtesy Oscar Rivera, Getty Images.

On July 13, 2007, Ms. Vasquez nine months pregnant and working when she began bleeding and feeling severe labor pains and called 911 to transport her to the hospital.  She waited for medical personnel for over four hours before fainting from blood loss in a restroom at work. She awoke to police accusing her of having killed the child—unaware that the child had already been born and that it was stillborn.  Ms. Vasquez was arrested and later convicted of aggravated homicide against her stillborn child.  The judge who convicted Ms. Vasquez in 2008 to the 30-year minimum sentence was the same judge who heard and denied her appeal in 2017.

During Ms. Vasquez’s appeal hearing, two medical experts testified to the child being born dead, and Ms. Vasquez not being responsible for the death of her child.  One testified that according to the results of the autopsy conducted by the Institute of Legal Medicine, the newborn had died of asphyxiation prior to birth due to complications from having been born outside of a hospital.  The second expert testified that the newborn was born dead and that the studies conducted during the criminal investigation by the prosecution were inadequate and incomplete.

The judge ruled that the defense’s medical experts did not present sufficient evidence to dispute the investigation carried out by the prosecution and that Ms. Vasquez’s appeal was denied.

Earlier in 2017, a 19-year old rape-survivor was sentenced to 30 years in prison after delivering a stillborn child at her home.  Prosecutors accused Evelyn Hernandez Cruz of not seeking prenatal care and alleged that she had aborted the fetus and thrown its remains into a latrine at her home.  The defense argued that Ms. Hernandez had not even known that she was pregnant, and had confused the labor pains with a stomach ache.  The defense is seeking an appeal following Ms. Hernandez’s conviction.

El Salvador, along with Malta, Andorra, Chile, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua, have criminalized abortion in any and all cases.  This law, enacted in 1998, allows women to be charged with murder and other related charges in cases of abortion or suspected abortion and extends liability to medical practitioners that fail to report suspected abortions.

According to Al Jazeera, 17 women in El Salvador have been convicted of aggravated homicide under this law between 1999-2011 for losing their babies.  “In most cases, these are women without resources who suffer obstetric emergencies or spontaneous abortions [miscarriages] and, when they go to hospitals, they are reported by the medical staff, because they are afraid of prosecution,” Katia Recinos, one of Ms. Velasquez’s lawyers, told Al Jazeera. These women have been sentenced from 12 to 30 years in prison as a result.

In 2016, the left-wing opposition party FLMA introduced a bill that would decriminalize abortion in cases of where the pregnancy would put the life and health of the mother at risk, where the pregnancy would produce an unviable fetus, or when the pregnancy was due to rape, incest, or human trafficking. The right-wing majority party ARENA—with support from the Salvadoran Catholic Church—countered the bill by petitioning Congress to increase the maximum penalty in these cases to 50 years in prison.  Both pieces of legislation are still pending within their respective committees.

Doctors who are suspected of aiding pregnancy terminations are also persecuted under the 1998 anti-abortion law.  Dr. Zulma Mendez, who leads the HIV program at the San Rafael Public Hospital of San Salvador, told the New York Times that she was threatened with criminal prosecution for her work.  “I wanted to help a woman whose emergency contraception didn’t work after she was raped.  Naively, I called the Institute of Legal Medicine and told them what had happened.  I was told not to get involved, as I could be put behind bars.”

Ms. Vasquez has served 10 years of her 30-year sentence and will be 57 years old when she is released.

For more information, please see:

BBC News – El Salvador rejects appeal in baby death case – 14 December 2017

The Guardian – El Salvador court upholds 30-year jail sentence in stillbirth case – 14 December 2017

El Nuevo Herald – Ratifican condena de 30 años de cárcel a mujer que abortó en El Salvador – 13 December 2017

El Salvador: Noticias – Tribunal ratifica sentencia de 30 años a mujer condenada por el homicidio de su bebé – 13 December 2017

Al Jazeera – El Salvador woman jailed after stillbirth seeks freedom – 8 December 2017

The New York Times – In El Salvador, ‘Girls Are a Problem’ – 2 September 2017

CNN – The people fighting the world’s harshest abortion law – 10 July 2017

Al Jazeera – El Salvador rape victim jailed 30 years for stillbirth – 7 July 2017

Independent – El Salvador jails raped teenager for 30 years under murder laws after she said she suffered miscarriage – 6 July 2017

The Guardian – El Salvador’s anti-abortion law makes criminals of mothers who miscarry – 30 November 2015

Author: Karina Johnson