In 2011, Elsy suffered a miscarriage only to be arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison on charges of aggravated homicide because the authorities concluded she had had an illegal abortion. Last December, as part of the campaign “Las 17” and “BringHomeLas17”, celebrities urged President Nayib Bukele to free all women serving prison sentences for homicide when they had suffered miscarriages, stillbirths, or other obstetric emergencies. Since December 2021, five women, including Elsy (whose name has been withheld for privacy reasons) has been released. This follows an Inter-American Court of Human Rights decision from November 2021 that found El Salvador responsible for the death of Manuela, who after an obstetric emergency, was convicted in 2008 of aggravated homicide and who later died in prison from cancer. Elsy’s release is a good step, but scores of women remain in prison under similar charges. Abortion is a crime in El Salvador, with no exceptions, even where the pregnancy endangers the pregnant woman’s life or health or in cases of rape. Anyone who has an abortion, and the medical providers who perform or induce them, can face harsh prison sentences. Under the draconian law, women accused of having had abortions have been convicted of murder, sometimes with prison terms of up to 40 years. Like Elsy, some of these women had experienced miscarriages or obstetric emergencies. Women who face criminal charges in El Salvador over abortion are disproportionately poor, women’s rights organizations have reported.
They often face violations of their medical confidentiality and due process rights and have a hard time getting adequate legal representation. This is consistent with Human Rights Watch findings in other Latin American and Caribbean countries, like Ecuador, where women face similar violations of their rights. Hospitals should not be a revolving door to prisons, and women should not be criminalized for having an obstetric emergency. Nor should those in poverty be disproportionately targeted for prosecution. El Salvador should repeal the total ban on abortion, pardon and release the women who remain in prison, and establish protocols to ensure access to safe, legal abortions.
The lives and rights of women and girls in El Salvador are depending on it.
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