A woman sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated murder after having a stillbirth has been freed in El Salvador in a case highlighting the dire consequences of the Central American country’s total ban on abortion.
Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, 34, was released on Thursday after serving almost 11 years for a crime she has always vehemently denied. Her sentence was commuted by the supreme court on the grounds that there was insufficient scientific evidence to determine that she had intentionally caused the stillbirth, but her conviction was not overturned.
Vásquez is the 16th woman to be freed as a result of appeals and campaigns by reproductive rights groups and lawyers working under hostile conditions perpetuated by the conservative media and powerful anti-abortion groups. A 17thwoman, Mayra Figueroa, who was jailed for 30 years in 2003, will be freed next month.
El Salvador is one of a handful of countries to ban abortion in all circumstances, even if the woman is raped, her health or life is at risk, or if the foetus is seriously deformed. Last year Chile voted to overturn its total ban to allow access to safe abortions in certain circumstances.
In El Salvador the legislation – in place since 1998 – has led to a string of miscarriages of justice in a conservative, macho culture that endorses the aggressive persecution of women deemed guilty of rejecting their primary roles as child bearers.
Most, like Vásquez, are poor, single and convicted on flimsy evidence after having a spontaneous gynaecological complication such as a miscarriage or stillbirth.
Last year a teenage rape survivor was sentenced to 30 years in prison afterhaving a stillbirth on the grounds that failing to seek antenatal care amounted to murder.
Vásquez was nine months’ pregnant in 2007 and excited about the imminent birth when she felt a piercing pain in her abdomen while at work. She called the emergency services but started bleeding and lost consciousness before help arrived. As she came round police officers accused her of murdering her baby by inducing an abortion.
Vásquez, who was 24 at the time and had a four-year-old son, was handcuffed and detained. She was hastily sentenced to 30 years based on an inconclusive, now discredited, autopsy report.
After a long campaign by the Salvadoran Citizens Association for the Decriminalisation of Abortion, her hopes were dashed in December when an appeals court upheld the 30-year sentence despite evidence from independent forensic experts who said the original autopsy was inadequate.
The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and the Salvadoran group have filed two cases with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of nine women currently jailed after suffering serious pregnancy complications and another Salvadoran woman who had been imprisoned after having an obstetric emergency and later died from untreated Hodgkin lymphoma while in jail.
“Teodora’s freedom is long overdue. The court finally affirmed that the sentence was unjust, excessive and disproportionate. El Salvador must prioritise abortion law reform and release the remaining women wrongfully behind bars,” said Nancy Northup, the president of the CRR.
The maximum jail term for abortion in El Salvador is eight years, but in many cases women are prosecuted for aggravated homicide. A proposal to relax the ban last year has still not been voted on.
Maria Teresa Rivera, who was released in 2016 after serving four and a half years of a 40-year sentence, was last year granted asylum in Sweden after prosecutors continued to pursue her case.
“The government must change these unjust, misogynous laws that only affect us poor women who suffer obstetric complications, never those with money who can easily pay a private clinic or go abroad for an abortion,” she told the Guardian. “I wish Teodora well. It’s not easy to start again, but it’s not impossible.”