Salvadoran Woman Sentenced to 30 Years After a Stillbirth Is Freed From Prison

Teodora Vásquez was convicted of aggravated homicide in 2008 after she experienced labor pains while at work in a school cafeteria.

[Photo: Teodora del Carmen Vasquez with her father and mother as she leaves the prison.]
Teodora del Carmen Vasquez with her father and mother as she leaves the prison. Kathy Bougher

Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, one of the dozens of Salvadoran women who have been arrested after experiencing stillbirths or other obstetric complications, was freed from prison on February 15 after originally being sentenced to 30 years behind bars.

“Of course this is an occasion for great joy for her family and great satisfaction for us and the many organizations and individuals who have worked for her release,” said Sara Garcia, coordinator of the feminist group Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto. “But it is not enough.” Garcia noted that although Vásquez’s sentencing was commuted to 10 years and seven months, “She is still considered guilty. We will continue exploring legal avenues to make sure that she is found innocent.”

In El Salvador, abortion is banned in all circumstances, which means those who experience obstetric emergencies may be at risk of arrest. Vásquez was convicted of aggravated homicide in 2008 after she experienced labor pains while at work in a school cafeteria. As Vásquez tells it, she attempted to call 911 several times for a ride to the hospital, but medical help did not respond. She used the bathroom, where she fainted as she gave birth and began to hemorrhage. When the police eventually arrived, they accused her of murdering her newborn, which was found in the bathroom. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

She and her attorneys requested a new trial, which was held in December 2017, as reported in Rewire. The trial included new witnesses, including forensic experts who detailed how the death of the newborn, though tragic, may have been the result of natural causes before, during, or after childbirth. However, the three-judge panel—the same individuals who convicted her in 2008—declared that no new evidence had been presented. They reaffirmed their original decision and sent her back to prison.

In 2015, Vásquez’s attorneys filed for a commutation of her sentence by the Salvadoran Supreme Court of Justice. That commutation was signed on January 31, 2018.

The Supreme Court of Justice and the Ministry of Justice and Public Security commuted the sentence of 30 years in prison because ‘there are powerful reasons based on justice, equity, and legal concepts that justify favoring her with the grace of commutation,’” said a press release from the Agrupación, which has been working to free Vásquez and the other women behind bars in El Salvador.

Specifically, the press release continued:

The Supreme Court of Justice determined that there were significant errors in the original court’s [2008] decision, particularly that the Court did not take into account the conflicting causes of death listed in the autopsy report. In one section it said that the death was a result of perinatal asphyxia, a tragic, but naturally occurring event.  In another section it declared that the asphyxia was mechanically caused, but provided no evidence that any person had taken any action to cause the death.

The Court also pointed out, according to the release, that Vásquez stated that she had made calls to 911 requesting help, and proof of those calls was provided to the Court. In addition, the Supreme Court observed, Vásquez had asked her employer for a $20 salary advance to take a taxi to the hospital, but the employer denied her request.  

With the commutation, Vásquez is still considered guilty, but she is no longer imprisoned and can begin the process of restarting her life with her family.  

Rewire met with her extended family recently during a visit to their remote rural community, a three-hour drive from the capital city. Her sister, Cecilia Vásquez de Ramos, who visited her sister regularly in prison, expressed her relief and joy that she was about to be released: “She will be free, and we will be united.”  

“Her conviction was a great injustice. They convicted her without trying to find out the truth. We were condemned, too, because we don’t have her with us. We’ve been affected by the discrimination and the comments that we hear about our sister. It kills your self-esteem because, even though we know she is not guilty, it’s really hard to hear,” Ramos continued.

“Then when she was not freed in December, it just about destroyed all of us.”

The Agrupación is celebrating Vásquez’s release, but also notes that 27 more women are currently serving similar prison terms. According to Garcia, the Agrupación is campaigning to release those women. It is also fighting, she said, to “reform the law, which bans all abortions,” and sets in place the discriminatory mechanisms that led to convictions such as Vásquez’s.