Updated Dec. 13, 2017, 3 p.m. EST: Teodora del Carmen Vásquez's appeal was denied. She will continue to serve out the remainder of her 30-year sentence.
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — It’s been 10 years since Teodora del Carmen Vásquez lost consciousness in a bathroom at work when she was nine months pregnant and delivered a stillborn baby. After police accused her of killing her newborn, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
A third of the way through her sentence, she passes the weeks and months at the Ilopango Women’s Prison reading books. “In the 10 years I’ve been here, I’ve probably read 500 books,” the 34-year-old Vásquez told Univision during a recent visit.
Confident and well-spoken, she sat in an airy, shaded courtyard area at the front of the prison, much different from what she describes as the overcrowded quarters where she lives alongside hundreds of women.
“When I got here I’d studied to third grade. Now I’m at a high school level,” she says. “I’m always reading or studying something so I don’t have to think about the fact that I’m here.”
El Salvador has one of the harshest abortion laws in the world. With staunch support from the country’s Catholic Church and a powerful pro-life lobby, abortion became illegal in 1998 in El Salvador in all cases including rape. It’s one of only five countries in the world where abortion is not allowed even to save the life of a pregnant mother; the others are Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Holy See and Malta.
But the Salvadoran government has also arrested dozens of women for abortion (which carries a sentence of up to eight years) and then convicted them of killing their newborns—slapping them with charges of aggravated homicide, which can carry sentences of up to 50 years.
Their cases have generated outrage among human rights defenders, who say they exemplify the failure of El Salvador’s legal system.
“Like many other women in El Salvador, Teodora was victim to a witch hunt looking for reasons to suspect women for having had an abortion and then charging them for a crime,” says Larry Ladutke, the El Salvador country specialist for Amnesty International USA, which is advocating on Vásquez’s behalf.
On December 8, Vásquez will go back to court for a review of her case. She says she is hoping for another chance; namely so she can be a mother again to her 14-year-old son, who was three-years-old when she went to jail.
“I never got into trouble before. I never expected to be here,” Vásquez says. “It’s different when you’re guilty but I am completely innocent.”
History of the law
Under El Salvador’s 1973 Penal Code, abortion was allowed in a number of cases. But in 1997, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance party, ARENA, submitted a bill to amend the code to ban it outright. The bill passed and went into effect in 1998. The following year, a constitutional amendment required the state to protect human life from the moment of conception.
** some policies change from state to state
In the two decades since, national and international human rights groups have rallied against the law, charging that it has led women and girls to die or be unjustly imprisoned.
Last year, ARENA parliamentarian Ricardo Andrés Velásquez Parker introduced a bill that could increase the maximum penalty of abortion from eight to 50 years—the same as aggravated homicide.
A wide body of research shows that restricting access to abortions does not reduce the number of abortions—it just makes them more dangerous. According to El Salvador’s Ministry of Health, in the three years between 2005 and 2008, there were 19,290 abortions in the country, 27.6% of them minors. It’s impossible to know how many of those resulted in death. But according to the World Health Organization, in countries where abortion is completely banned, only one in four abortions were safe. In El Salvador, 30 percent of those who gave birth in the country in 2015 were girls ages 10 to 19.
The restrictions have led to the rise of an underground network of pharmacists and doctors who work to provide girls and women with safe abortions.
One such doctor, who goes by the name Dr. Hell to protect his privacy, is part of a collective of physicians who perform the procedure. Together, he says they perform some six to 10 abortions per month, and that the vast majority of his patients are poor women. That’s because women with economic resources can easily find a doctor to perform the procedure for them.
“A woman with purchasing power can easily access it,” he says. “Our goal is to reach the largest number of women possible.”
Some 20 women are currently in prison in El Salvador serving out harsh sentences for what they say were natural causes. Though prosecutors declared they killed their babies, all the women reported that their newborns were either born dead or died shortly after delivery.
Following a visit to El Salvador last month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said he was “appalled” that women are being punished in El Salvador for apparent miscarriages and other obstetric emergencies. He called on the country to “review all cases where women have been detained for abortion-related offenses, with the aim of ensuring compliance with due process and fair trial standards.”
“Should it be found their cases were not compliant, I appeal for the immediate release of these women,” he wrote in a statement.
But abortion opponents say that the women’s claims are lies pushed by an international "pro-abortion lobby" that is seeking to change El Salvador's abortion law.
It’s “international interference,” Velásquez Parker told Univision, “from organizations that try to position their propaganda and ideologies to the detriment of countries like El Salvador. This lobby, this international industry, goes against common sense.”
“These women,” he says, “killed their newborns.”
“I didn’t even know I was pregnant”
Vásquez is one of 17 women, known as “ Las 17” (“The 17”), who between 1999 and 2011 were sentenced following reported miscarriages, most on charges of aggravated homicide.
On July 13, 2007, Vásquez was nine months pregnant and expecting when she says she began to feel ill at the school where she worked as a cook. She called 911 to report a pain that she thought indicated she was in labor. Hours passed, the pain got worse, and the ambulance never arrived. After she felt the urge to go to the bathroom, she hovered over the toilet and passed out. She remembers only fragments of what happened next.
“Eventually I was able to react, but I don’t remember anything,” she says. “When I got up I fainted again and I did not hear anything. I did not hear my baby cry, I did not hear anything.”
When police arrived, they say they found her baby in the toilet bowl, lifeless. Vásquez was lying in a pool of blood.
“I thought they were there to help me because I didn’t know I’d had the baby,” she says. “I had called them and told them I was pregnant and that my baby was going to be born and I needed them to come help me but they never did.”
Her attorney, human rights lawyer Victor Hugo Mata, says Vásquez’s trial was flawed from the start. There is no certainty that her baby was born alive, he says. But she was presumed guilty and charged with homicide. Being from a poor family, she could not afford a legal team to represent her.
“Normally these cases are closed without the possibility of revision, it’s difficult to get a review and the prosecution plays a really shameful role,” he says. “The prosecution makes accusations without having solid evidence. They don’t investigate thoroughly. Forensic specialists don’t do the necessary tests. They use flawed reasoning to conclude that the babies were killed.”
In a similar case earlier this year, 19-year-old Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez Cruz was found guilty of aggravated homicide in July after giving birth to a premature, most likely stillborn baby in the outhouse of her family’s home, in a rural area. She was bleeding vaginally before the incident, and was later found to have a bladder infection, a common precursor to obstetric complication. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
The judge concluded that Hernandez Cruz was lying and that she intentionally killed the baby.
“When the prosecutor said he was accusing me of killing my baby I told him I did not do it,” she says. “I didn’t even know what was happening, I didn’t even know that I was pregnant. I never even had symptoms.”
Inside Ilopango, Vásquez says she has tried to serve as a sort of mentor figure to Hernandez Cruz. “I always look for her to talk, to support her, to let her know I’m here,” she says. “I hope she can leave this place. Lately I notice she’s really sad.”
Mata says he is hopeful that Vásquez’s charge will be annulled and that she will be released from prison soon. The trial will likely last one day. “But I always have doubts,” he says.
Since 2008, Mata successfully litigated for the release of three other women imprisoned with similar cases. One of those women, Maria Teresa Rivera, was released last year and later sought refuge in Sweden.
“They’re all the same,” he says. “They are obstetric emergencies, untimely births, leaving the mother unconscious. The newborn is either born dead or dies immediately after birth. In my opinion this should attract more attention inside the country.”
“The cases are full of pure falsehoods,” Mata adds. “And this completely destroys the woman’s life.”
Ladutke, of Amnesty International, says this happens exclusively to poor women because private hospitals tend not to turn women in.
“In public hospitals, staff are scared of being charged as implicit in abortion, so they rush to judge that women have engaged in infanticide or had an abortion,” he says.
A new bill introduced late last year by the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front party would allow abortion in cases of rape when the victim is a minor or a victim of human trafficking, when the fetus is not viable, or to protect a woman's health or life. But the bill has faced serious opposition and appears to be stalled.
Velásquez Parker says allowing abortions for certain causes is a slippery slope. It would open “a small window” that would eventually turn into “abortions on demand,” he says. “Because that has happened in every other country that’s had this debate.”
In Vásquez’s case, Mata will argue that the prosecutor ruled based on conjecture, and that the case lacks proven facts.
If she is released, Vásquez says she hopes to leave El Salvador.
“Not only me but my whole family,” she says. “I would like to leave and never come back here because El Salvador has not been kind to me. I did not expect this from my country, but this is what I received.”
If the judges uphold the charge, she will likely remain in prison to finish out the remainder of her 30-year sentence.
For now, she is staying busy with workshops and classes, and, of course, books. Behind bars, she reads every genre. But the books that help her most are those that seek to provide answers.
Her favorite book is the Christian bestseller When God Doesn’t Make Sense.
“Because I am here, and it doesn’t make any sense,” she says. “I’m just here.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.