El Salvador’s Right-Wing Media Begins Sustained Campaign Against Releasing 17 Women Imprisoned on Abortion-Related Charges

High-profile ultra-conservative Salvadoran right-to-life forces have launched a vicious attack in response to the slow but significant gains achieved by the Salvadoran feminist campaign to secure legal pardons for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women unjustly imprisoned on abortion-related charges.

High-profile ultra-conservative Salvadoran right-to-life forces have launched a vicious attack in response to the slow but significant gains achieved by the Salvadoran feminist campaign to secure legal pardons for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women unjustly imprisoned on abortion-related charges. Shutterstock

Read more of our coverage on the campaign for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women imprisoned on abortion-related charges, here.

High-profile ultra-conservative Salvadoran right-to-life forces have launched a vicious attack in response to the slow but significant gains achieved by the Salvadoran feminist campaign to secure legal pardons for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women unjustly imprisoned on abortion-related charges. Utilizing the historic power of the right-wing-controlled mainstream media, right-to-life backers, including Julia Regina de Cardenal, president of Si a la Vida (Yes to Life), her mother columnist Evangelina Pilar del Sol, and columnist Evangelina de Guirola, attempt to influence public opinion against the 17 imprisoned women by publishing lurid, inflammatory details taken out of context and convoluting the truth. They represent the small cluster of wealthy, highly conservative, powerful families that have controlled El Salvador for generations.

Most recently, one Salvadoran right-to-life backer made the unconscionable choice to publish the full names of some of the 17 women, endangering both the women in prison and their families on the outside, especially their children.

Other women who have been in prison on abortion-related charges reported that they made every effort not to disclose to other inmates the crime for which they were imprisoned, as they explained in an on-the-ground interview with Rewire in March 2014. The word “abortion” in El Salvador is synonymous with “assassin” and “baby-killer.” The stigma and shame attached to abortion apply mercilessly to women in prison, and they suffer harassment, exclusion, and violence both from other inmates as well as prison personnel. In a separate interview with another researcher, a woman who served time on abortion-related charges described how other inmates would call out, “You ate your children,” when they passed by. Family members of the imprisoned women, and especially their children, become targets of harassment, name-calling, and violence in their neighborhoods and often in their schools.

After careful consideration, the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion), which leads the campaign for Las 17, decided to refrain from sharing details of that information so as to minimize further endangering the women in prison. Rewire chooses to respect that decision by omitting the conventionally expected citations. The Agrupación is exploring possible ways to mitigate the damage and danger caused.

Even though the petitions requesting pardons for the 17 women do not purport to change the law that criminalizes abortion under all circumstances in the country, the campaign in their favor addresses the consequences of that absolute prohibition on the lives of Salvadoran women. Fissures in the silence appeared in 2013 when Beatriz, a young woman with a life-threatening health condition who was pregnant with a non-viable, anencephalic fetus, requested an abortion, and cracked open the door to a national conversation.

Why Now?

Why has the right-wing opposition become especially virulent now? It appears that the campaign to free 17 women serving sentences up to 30 or even 40 years challenges the ruling class’s choke-hold on the political, social, and economic underpinnings of the society. In phone interviews with Rewire, members of the campaign for Las 17 speculate that the right feels the pressure of the accumulated small shifts in public opinion, and that they fear they are losing territory they have controlled for generations, if not centuries.

Salvadoran economist, feminist, and respected columnist Julia Evelyn Martinez wrote an article naming the “troika” she holds responsible for the “crusade” against the 17 as Opus Dei (ultra-conservative Catholic group), Si a la Vida (Right to Life), and El Diario de Hoy (a right-wing Salvadoran mainstream newspaper). She asserts, “What makes them afraid, profoundly afraid, is that this pardon can reveal before the national conscience, the reality of the injustice in which poor women live, and for which they [the troika] are historically responsible.”

A fact which the “troika” ignores, and which the Agrupación emphasizes repeatedly in on-the-ground interviews and in its report Del Hospital a la Cárcel (From the Hospital to the Jail) is that these laws apply only to poor women in El Salvador. There is no record of a middle class or upper class women being prosecuted for arriving at a private clinic or hospital with an obstetrical complication.

A recent radio interview serves as evidence of shifts affecting the national conscience. A right-wing talk radio program, Pencho y Aida, directed at the professional and middle classes of the country, featured Dr. Sofia Villalta and Dr. Xochitl Ramirez, both highly respected obstetricians and gynecologists as well as researchers, who spoke about sexual and reproductive rights, including abortion, in unflinching scientific terms within a solid social justice and human rights framework.

Villalta asserted that in a study interviewing the Salvadoran Association of Gynecologists, “65% of those interviewed agreed with the need for legal therapeutic abortions [the woman’s life is in danger], fewer for ethical abortions [pregnancy resulting from sexual violence], and quite a lot for abortions when the fetus is not viable.”

She continued, “Not infrequently we see young pregnant women die in hospitals from cardiac problems or kidney failure, and disgracefully, in these situations we in the medical profession are powerless. The prohibition keeps us from any possibility of helping a woman survive.”

They called for a revision of the abortion law, not to foment licentiousness, as they said “some groups” have accused, but to have justice for women and change the androcentric culture.

The two physicians even took on the question of when life begins with their credible historical discussion of the changes in perspectives of the Catholic Church over the centuries. When the show’s hosts pointed out the principle that life begins at conception is part of the Salvadoran Constitution, they countered that laws are “dynamic processes,” and that “when there are conflicts, the interests of the person most at risk must prevail.”

“That the hosts allowed them to speak for a full hour without cutting them off is a significant advance,” according to Alberto Romero of the Salvadoran Movement for a Secular Culture, a member organization in the campaign for the 17, in a Skype interview with Rewire.

A Vicious Response From the Right

Building on their newspaper columns, the right has initiated a petition campaign to convince national legislators to reject the pardons for Las 17. The petition does not identify its authors, but it contains links to the same series of columns and its text features the same distortions and context- and evidence-lacking claims. It was organized through CitizenGO, a Madrid-based Christian foundation whose principles include the belief that life begins at conception.

This writer spent two weeks in June 2014 carefully reading major sections of each of the 17 women’s case files, including legal and medical documents. That background makes it possible to offer a critique of the claims in the petition and provide other perspectives.

Some of the claims made in the petition and accompanying explanatory document include:

In 100% of the cases it doesn’t have to do with the presumption of the crime of abortion, rather they were convicted for infanticide. In all cases the death of the baby took place after the birth. [Translation by the writer.]

One of the right’s major strategies is to discredit and ridicule the campaign for Las 17 by claiming that the women’s convictions are for murder and have nothing to do with abortion.

The deeper story becomes much more complex. What the files actually reveal is that originally most of the women were accused of abortion and for that reason turned over to authorities. Medical personnel viewed women brought into public hospitals hemorrhaging and semi-conscious as potential criminals because of the 1997 law prohibiting all abortions. Since abortion is not clearly defined in the law, almost anything related to an obstetrical complication can be named abortion. The law contains no language that addresses spontaneous abortions (miscarriages), stillbirths, precipitous births, or other obstetric complications. Since none of these more precise terms have come into common use in the society at large, the term abortion takes on overwhelming proportions because of the perception of the power it carries.

Other sections of the law also criminally penalize a physician who provides an abortion or who does not report suspected illegal behavior. Physicians feel pressure to err on the side of reporting, in addition to sometimes acting on their own beliefs about abortion. Because of the 1998 constitutional amendment defining life as beginning at conception, the charges against the women were amended to aggravated homicide in 15 of the 17 cases. No woman has a conviction for infanticide, but perhaps the petition utilized that term to create greater public outrage. Two women’s babies did not die from the complicated birth circumstances, but the women were still charged with attempted aggravated homicide. Yes, it’s complex, but that’s how the laws are written and applied.

We need to ask if Las 17 would have come to the attention of police and prosecutors if the criminalization of abortion did not exist in El Salvador?

The review of the files permits an observation of stories that are quite horrifying. [bold print from the original text] In many cases asphyxiation took place. In others, craneoencephalic trauma. One of them gave birth in a latrine. Another in a toilet. The baby died of perinatal asphyxia by immersion.

Tragic occurrences do happen, but they are not always the result of a deliberate action. The crafters of this document extract from their proper context particularly lurid autopsy details. The context lacking is not just textual, but also the social and political contexts in which the women live. The document utilizes passive constructions such as, “In many cases asphyxia occurred,” conjuring a terrible image of a woman asphyxiating her baby without explaining how asphyxia can occur before and during birth and omitting the distinct possibility that it happened without any criminal action. Medical professionals concur that asphyxia can be the result of complicated, unassisted births, which all of Las 17 experienced. This reflects extreme poverty, not criminal intent.

The petition makes the same kinds of accusations concerning incidents of craneoencephalic trauma, which can also occur as part of a precipitous or rapid birth, especially when unassisted. Given the descriptions that many women provided of their experiences, precipitous or rapid birth is a viable explanation. However, those terms almost never appear in the medical records.

And, yes, a large percentage of homes in El Salvador have outdoor latrines, not a crime, while others have indoor toilets. Several of the women described feeling pain and the urge to defecate, going to the latrine or the toilet, and at that point giving birth unexpectedly. So, yes, the neonate does land in the latrine or the toilet, but not as the result of a criminal action.

The Agrupación and other supporters of Las 17 have been working to bring this kind of information to the public realm, but it’s a mighty task in a highly conservative, religious society that renders invisible much about women’s bodies and the natural processes of pregnancy and childbirth, to say nothing of the complications that can result. The medical and judicial systems are structured to facilitate naming every obstetrical complication that a poor woman suffers a crime.

In another case the mother affirmed that she had given birth without help…

Yes, this woman (and thousands more) gave birth without help. That’s not a crime, but it is cruel and unjust for the state (and wealthy, powerful citizens) to stigmatize and imprison women for the consequences of living in extreme poverty in a remote area without adequate transportation or communication.

In another case she gave birth on the bank of a stream and abandoned the baby. The autopsy reveals that “it had no internal organs because the animals had eaten them.”

This highly disturbing image takes on a different perspective with the fuller story. This woman states that she was ill from a severe fever and might have lost consciousness. She regained consciousness by the bank of the stream where she recalls giving birth. She lost consciousness again, and when she came to again, she returned to her house and stayed in bed for three days recovering from her fever. No one actually observed what happened, including neighbors who were called as witnesses. The files also show that the woman lived with her parents in extreme poverty. They sent her to school as a child, but she was never able to learn to read and write, only to sign her name and do basic addition. She reported that the pregnancy resulted from a rape committed by a stranger. And, yes, in rural areas animals feed on what they find.

All the aspects of this story are uncomfortable, but it appears that the petition’s purpose in including particularly shocking details and omitting those that provide a context for this woman’s life was to provoke a sense of revulsion toward the woman and to dehumanize her. As Martinez observed, the authors of the petition “are doing everything necessary to keep the society from feeling empathy with the pain and the suffering of these 17 women.”

Fortunately in one case the baby managed to survive.

And yes, actually two of the 17 women suffered obstetric complications, but their babies lived. However, each child is spending the first decade or two of life without its mother since she is in prison for attempted aggravated homicide. One of the women and her husband explained to the judge, along with a social worker’s confirmation, that they had looked forward to having a baby, and that she had done nothing intentional to harm the baby. The judge said simply, “I don’t believe you,” and that was enough for her to go to prison instead of home to raise her child. What happened to the presumption of innocence?

Feminists allege that in the majority of the cases there was discrimination for the lack of maternal instinct. … [T]he absence of maternal instinct, this never justifies infanticide.

Absence of maternal instinct? Feminists have never used this term. This phrase contorts what judges, prosecutors charge, often in court hearings and documents along with right-to-life backers: that all women have a natural maternal instinct and that a real woman who cares about her baby will do everything possible to save its life. So, if the baby or fetus dies, it is because she is a “denaturalized woman.” In addition to the extreme prejudices the statement expresses, it ignores the fact that many of the women were unconscious and bleeding heavily at the time, were alone, and had no capacity to do anything for themselves or the fetus or newborn.

Of course a developed society should support socially mothers who find themselves facing an unexpected pregnancy or who are having difficulties.

And how does this happen in El Salvador? What “social” supports can the crafters of the petition point to for a woman with a baby she is unprepared to care for? What about political and economic support?

What happens to middle class and upper class women who confront an unexpected pregnancy? Don’t they have access to private hospitals or passports and plane tickets to leave the country to obtain whatever medical care they deem appropriate for themselves?

But in a developed society neither can we decriminalize infanticide nor permit that unscrupulous [abortion-providing] entrepreneurs profit from the suffering of women.

The arguments shift from claiming feminists want to decriminalize abortion to claiming feminists want to decriminalize infanticide, quite likely to produce more horror. Then the argument jumps to “unscrupulous entrepreneurs” who “profit from abortion” with the suffering of the women. Again, these constitute efforts to contort and sensationalize in order to exploit unfounded fears. Unscrupulous abortion profiteers flourish when abortion is criminalized.

Moving Forward

Poor women accused of abortion must confront the medical and judicial systems of El Salvador from a completely disadvantageous position, systems based on social, economic, and political structures designed to keep poor women subjugated, poor, and powerless. Until the Agrupación and its supporters started challenging these inequitable and unjust practices, they slid by under the radar unquestioned. The work of the campaign to free Las 17 lies in unmasking these realities in order to work toward the construction of a truly democratic society.

A bitter measure of success of the Agrupación so far is that the right-wing groups working against full sexual and reproductive rights for women have taken desperate steps, including resorting to endangering women in prison and their families.

This contest between dramatically distinct world views continues as Salvadoran feminists and their supporters move forward in their struggles for justice for 17 unjustly imprisoned women and to touch, as Martinez described it, the “national conscience.”