In November 2011, Maria Teresa Rivera unexpectedly went into labor, giving birth in the latrine of her home. The birth was dangerous and unattended by any medical professionals; the fetus died. Like many women in El Salvador, where abortion is completely illegal, Rivera’s medical crisis led to her being charged with and convicted of aggravated homicide; she was sentenced in 2012 to 40 years in prison.
Rivera’s sentence is the most extreme of “Las 17,” a group of women who have been imprisoned after obstetrical emergencies. Now, she is scheduled to have a new day in court on May 11, when she will argue that there were judicial errors in her original trial. If the judge rules in her favor, she will be freed from prison. Advocates say that her case could influence public sentiment about other similar cases around the country.
With the support of the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, a Salvadoran feminist organization, Rivera has been fighting her case for several years, as reported earlier in Rewire. Along with the rest of Las 17, she requested a pardon from the Salvadoran government in 2014, but her request was denied.
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“Rivera represents the maximum will of the state to criminalize women in this country,” Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación, explained in an on-the-ground interview with Rewire. “Her sentence is the longest of any of the women with similar convictions; at 40 years, it is practically a life sentence.”
Fortunate To Be Alive
Maria Teresa Rivera, who shared her story on camera from prison in 2013, was a 28-year-old factory worker in 2011. She was living with her young son and his grandparents, her ex in-laws, in a very modest home in the outskirts of San Salvador. Rivera, the sole provider for the family, supplemented her factory work with house-cleaning in order to pay $13 a month to keep her son in a neighborhood Catholic school and purchase his asthma medication.
One night, according to court documents, Rivera said she awoke with intense thirst. But when she arose from her bed, she felt dizzy and then fainted. When she regained consciousness, she felt a strong urge to defecate and went to the latrine outside the house. As she sat in the latrine, she had intense cramping and “felt as if a little ball fell from her body.” Then she fainted and fell to the ground, where her mother-in-law found her in a pool of blood and called an ambulance to take her to the hospital. No one at the scene—family or paramedics—reported hearing any sounds of a baby, and no one realized she had given birth.
Rivera told doctors, attorneys, and others that did not know she was pregnant. She had been experiencing bleeding during the time of the pregnancy, which she interpreted as her menstrual cycle. Neither she nor any friends, relatives, or co-workers noted any physical changes that would indicate a pregnancy. She had also had two doctor visits for other complaints during those months, and no doctor had diagnosed her pregnancy. According to her own estimations, the last sexual contact she’d had that could have resulted in pregnancy had been six months earlier.
She arrived at the hospital in a severe state of shock from extreme blood loss, fortunate to still be alive. Doctors told her she had given birth and wanted to know where the baby was. Medical personnel contacted police, who went to her home to locate the deceased fetus. Rivera was detained by police at the hospital and has been imprisoned since that time.
Interrogation While Hospitalized
Multiple national and international organizations, including Amnesty International and the Center for Reproductive Rights, along with numerous medical, legal, human rights, and academic experts, have analyzed Rivera’s case in the years since her conviction. Harvard University sociologist Jocelyn Viterna and Salvadoran lawyer Jose Santos Guardado Bautista, for example, used parts of Rivera’s story and court documents in their 2014 analysis of systematic gender discrimination toward Las 17 within the judicial system.
Viterna and Bautista noted, for example, that the only witness testimony the judge considered credible was a supervisor from human resources at the factory where Rivera worked. Contrary to Rivera’s testimony, the supervisor testified that Rivera asked for time off for doctor appointments in January 2011 because she was pregnant. The judge refused to allow testimony from neighbors and friends who stated that they had never seen Rivera show any signs of pregnancy.
“Had Maria Teresa truly reported a pregnancy to her employer in January of 2011, she would have been 11 months pregnant when the birth occurred in November,” Viterna and Bautista observed. “This testimony is nothing short of preposterous. Nevertheless, this is the only witness testimony that the judge deems ‘credible’ in the final sentencing.”
According to Viterna and Bautista’s report, “The judge admitted that there was no evidence that Maria Teresa had done anything to hurt her baby. The judge also admitted that there was no evidence of any motive for why she would want to kill her baby.” However, he still convicted her of aggravated homicide.
A 2015 resolution from the Salvadoran Attorney General for Human Rights (Procuradoría Para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos or PDDH in Spanish), which provided a formal opinion on violations of Rivera’s human rights, supports Viterna and Bautista’s findings.
The PDDH resolution observed that Rivera faced a slanted system even before she got to court:
At the First of May Hospital where Rivera was taken, the criminal investigation was prioritized over her right to health. She was subjected to interrogation when she was still in Intensive Care and without legal representation. In addition, the medical personnel did not seek information about her health history; they limited themselves to examining the birth canal, carrying out the extraction of the remaining placenta, and discharging her the following day, without attending to her overall health.
Both the PDDH and Viterna-Bautista reports noted that the judge relied on shoddy, unscientific evidence to convict Rivera. According to court records, the autopsy report for the fetus said its cause of death was “perinatal asphyxia.”
“It is perhaps worth reiterating that there were no signs of trauma on the [fetus], either externally or internally. It is perhaps worth reiterating that, despite the judge’s conclusion that the [fetus] died from suffocating within the latrine, the fetal lungs were clean with no sign of fecal matter or other materials inside them. Rather, the autopsy concluded that the [fetus] died of a medical condition—perinatal asphyxiation—that could have occurred before, during, or after the birth. Clearly, there is no evidence in these documents proving homicide,” Viterna and Bautista wrote. “Perinatal asphyxiation,” they said, “is a medical condition.”
Still, the judge interpreted the autopsy report to mean that Rivera had carried out an intentional criminal act. He also ignored the portion of the autopsy report stating that the umbilical cord could have been separated by its fall into the latrine. As quoted by the PDDH resolution, he wrote:
There is no doubt that the baby was born alive and was full-term and that the detached umbilical cord was cut by the mother …. This judge does not give credibility to what the accused says when she states she did not know she was pregnant …. She knew she was pregnant and that brought with it the obligation to care for and protect this young person she carried in her womb. In this sense, the fact that she went to the latrine, she did it with the intention of violently expelling [it] so that inside the latrine there would be no opportunity to breathe and in that way cause its death and then be able to say it was a [spontaneous] abortion.”
The judge also based his conviction, the PDDH resolution said, on the results of a DNA test showing the fetus was genetically related to Rivera.
“No evidence was introduced to show that Rivera had taken any intentional action to cause the death,” the PDDH resolution concluded.
Convicted by Patriarchy
Rivera’s legal representatives will likely use many of these inconsistencies as evidence for procedural judicial error in court this week. A favorable outcome in her trial can represent a significant step forward for women’s human rights, particularly sexual and reproductive rights in El Salvador. The country’s 1997 absolute ban on abortion, along with a 1998 constitutional modification to declare that life begins at conception, created the social, cultural, and legal environment that has justified courts sending women such as Rivera to prison for documented obstetrical emergencies, not even attempted abortion. According to the global organization Ipas, more than 600 women were incarcerated between 1998 and 2013 under the abortion law.
As the PDDH resolution noted, “in El Salvador, there exists a culture of the promotion of motherhood as the only form of self-realization for women, and the creation of the binomial ‘woman-mother,’ which locates women as instinctive and not rational. This imposes upon women [duties of] sacrifice, abnegation, and the prioritization of children over their own human conditions, behaviors that are not demanded in equal proportions from men.
“Women find themselves with a social expectation to comply with the role ‘woman-mother,’ even in the health system where women should be assured of conditions free of discrimination and obstetric violence,” it continued.
Advocates and researchers have argued that this sexist framework contributed to Rivera’s conviction. As Viterna and Bautista wrote, the trial judge claimed that Rivera “‘decided to carry out her criminal plan within the area of her household, looking for a moment during which there weren’t any other persons around to carry out this homicide,’ as if a woman has complete control over when, where and how her body will give birth.”
The PDDH concluded that “the judge convicted Rivera under subjective criteria with a heavily sexist ideology,” saying that Rivera’s rights to the presumption of innocence were overruled by such an ideology, unsupported by any medical or scientific evidence.
Rivera’s case, along with that of Carmen Guadalupe Vazquez (who was one of Las 17 granted a pardon in 2015 when the Salvadoran Supreme Court recognized judicial errors in her case), is representative of a consistent pattern toward this group of women that the Agrupación has been documenting.
“Correcting these judicial errors is very important, first of all for Rivera and her young son, so that she can go free, but also for all the other women in similar circumstances. It’s also necessary for those who work for justice in this country, particularly women’s reproductive justice, to see that the work has concrete results,” Herrera said.
Herrera hopes that a positive outcome will continue to make visible this pattern of judicial error and “move other cases [of Las 17] forward more rapidly and bring greater justice to the judicial system.”
According to IThe Agrupación is currently representing more than 25 women imprisoned with similar convictions: the original 17, two of whom received pardons, and others who have entered the system more recently.
“Maria Teresa’s story illustrates the systematic ways that women’s rights are violated: the right to health, the right to privacy in one’s life, the right to doctor-patient confidentiality, along with all the judicial procedural rights such as the presumption of innocence,” Herrera said in an interview with Rewire.
“The judicial system in El Salvador is the part of the state that has changed least since the signing of the 1992 peace accords” that ended the Salvadoran civil war, Herrera said. “Not just in how it deals with women, but how little sensitivity it demonstrates overall with regard to human rights.”