Women suspected of abortion in El Salvador face criminal charges, jail time

Since 1997, abortion has been illegal in El Salvador with no exceptions for cases of rape, incest or threat to the mother’s life. Dozens of women have been prosecuted for illegal abortions, in some cases for aggravated homicide. Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on the consequences of one of the world's most stringent abortion laws.


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to El Salvador, home to some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the world.

NewsHour special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on what it means for women there when abortion is considered murder, without exception.

A version of this story originally aired on the PBS program "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly."

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Farm laborer Elias Cruz took the day off recently to visit his daughter's pro bono attorney.

ELIAS CRUZ, agricultural laborer (through interpreter): She feels her case has been abandoned. They did not investigate as they should have to get concrete evidence.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Nineteen-year-old Glenda Cruz was recently began a 10-year sentence for aggravated homicide after her pregnancy ended under suspicious circumstances. She said it was a miscarriage. Her father blames her abusive boyfriend, who then testified against her.

Lawyer Dennis Munoz Estanley plans to appeal.

DENNIS MUNOZ ESTANLEY, attorney (through interpreter): Glenda has never been alone. Maybe it's because she is in prison that she thinks she is alone.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Across town at the state's medical legal department, which advised the prosecution, JOSE FORTIN MAGANA has no doubt this was a case of infanticide.

DR. JOSE FORTIN MAGANA, El Salvador (through interpreter): She is in prison because of an abortion. It's absolutely false what she says. What happens is when someone murders someone else, he or she doesn't turn up on the TV and say, I'm guilty of murder. Maybe there has been a mistake, but in most cases they are guilty.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Glenda Cruz's one of several cases that have come under public scrutiny in the debate over one of the world's most stringent abortion laws.

Since 1997, abortion has been illegal in El Salvador with no exceptions, which had once existed for cases such as rape, incest, or threat to the mother's life. Dozens of women have been prosecuted for illegal abortion, in some cases for aggravated homicide.

The change reflected a strong influence in this conservative, largely Catholic nation of the group Si ala Vida, or Yes to Life, and church leadership, with close allies in the National Republican Alliance, or ARENA, party, which rose to power after the civil war ended in 1992.

Miguel Angel Aquino is bishop of the city of San Miguel.

BISHOP MIGUEL MORAN AQUINO, Roman Catholic Bishop of San Miguel (through interpreter): We cannot accept any law that goes against life. It is not a question of faith and religion, but of humanity.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Many doctors say the law has put them in a very difficult position. Obstetrician Jorge Cruz says they cannot intervene to preserve a woman's health even if a pregnancy has no chance of coming to term.

JORGE CRUZ, obstetrician-gynecologist (through interpreter): The law does not permit us to terminate pregnancies that are unviable, such as ectopic pregnancies, as long as there is a fetal heartbeat. Often, there is a rupture and hemorrhage, and often women die from the shock.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He and colleagues feel that many doctors, particularly junior ones, are being intimidated into betraying patient confidentiality, for fear that they could be prosecuted as accessories.

JORGE CRUZ (through interpreter): In the public health system, patients coming in with an abortion, whether self-inflicted or septic, providers were told they had to report the patients for prosecution.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But medical legal officer Magana says the doctors' fears are exaggerated.

JOSE FORTIN MAGANA (through interpreter): The statistics of the doctors in jail because of the crime of abortion is zero.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In truly dire circumstances, he says, doctors can save a woman's life. He points to the cast last summer of a 22-year-old woman whose situation drew international attention and whose conclusions seemed to skirts the law.

Known only as Beatriz, she was suffering from the immune disease lupus syndrome kidney failure. She was pregnant with a severely deformed fetus that could not survive outside the womb. After deliberating for several weeks and at 26 weeks into the pregnancy, El Salvador's supreme court denied a petition for an abortion, a decision that drew widespread protests. The court upheld the recommendation of Fortin Magana's office.

Just one week after the court decision, doctors were then allowed to perform a Caesarean section, a process that in, Fortin Magana's view, respected the infant's right to life.

JOSE FORTIN MAGANA (through interpreter): The department of legal medicine said Beatriz wasn't at imminent risk, and we were right, because time went on and she continued with her pregnancy. The baby was delivered. He lived for eight hours, and then he died.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But the weeks-long ordeal harmed the mother's health and caused Beatriz needless suffering, say these obstetricians, including Mirna De Rivas.

MIRNA DE RIVAS, obstetrician-gynecologist (through interpreter): One of the consequences of all of this is that consultations with women in these situations have gone way down, and that creates even more complicated cases.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For some women whose pregnancies fail, it's been difficult to prove that they have not been responsible for miscarrying. About nine years ago, Cristina Quintanilla, 18 at the time, was close to term when she says she suffered a miscarriage.

CRISTINA QUINTANILLA, El Salvador (through interpreter): I sat on the toilet and I felt a strong pain. Next thing I know, I'm in the hospital.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Quintanilla's mother called the police, a common practice in emergencies here because ambulances are unreliable, a call she fears was construed as a complaint.

CARMEN QUINTANILLA, mother (through interpreter): It was very depressing when I realized what I did. We were scared that she could die. The authorities misinterpreted it.

CRISTINA QUINTANILLA (through interpreter): I was dizzy because of the anesthesia and blood loss, and I saw a man wearing blue asking for my name. He said, "You're under arrest for the murder of your child."

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Quintanilla was sentenced to 30 years for aggravated homicide, even though she says the autopsy was ruled inconclusive. Her sentence was eventually commuted to time served, four hellish years, she says.

CRISTINA QUINTANILLA (through interpreter): I felt so terrible, because the prosecutor would keep pointing at me and saying, "She killed her baby, she killed her baby."

If you go to prison for an abortion, they beat you up. And it's not just me. There are other women in there.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Including Glenda Cruz. Lawyer Munoz represented both women and hopes he can get a similar commutation for Cruz.

DENNIS MUNOZ ESTANLEY (through interpreter): I don't believe she is capable of what they've accused her. She's not violent; she was raised with Christian morals.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: We tried without success to talk to the prosecutors in the Cruz case. Defense attorney Munoz Estanley has managed to free eight women jailed in abortion cases.

DENNIS MUNOZ ESTANLEY (through interpreter): In most of these cases, these are poor women, women with not very much education. Sometimes, there are cases of women who are illiterate. It's important to remember that before 1998, therapeutic abortions and abortions of deformed fetuses or for rape were allowed, and now it's not the same political climate.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Bishop Aquino said the conservative climate is a backlash against feminist groups that have tried to impose liberal social legislation that is counter to the culture here. The Beatriz case was the latest such interference, he says.

MIGUEL MORAN AQUINO (through interpreter): They want to promote therapeutic abortion. This would open the window to other kinds of abortions, then same-sex marriage and adopting children by homosexuals or lesbians.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Recent polls show most Salvadorians oppose abortion, but support some exceptions. However, with elections looming next year, political analysts say it's doubtful there will be any changes to the laws governing abortion any time soon.