A Victory for Women’s Rights in El Salvador

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The release of María Teresa Rivera brings hope to the many women incarcerated for abortion charges in El Salvador.

By Julie Morse

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A woman participates in a march on the 2012 International Day of Action for the Decriminalization of Abortion, in San Salvador. (Photo: Jose Cabezas/AFP/GettyImages)

Last week, a judge in El Salvador made a landmark decision to annul María Teresa Rivera’s 40-year prison sentence for having a miscarriage, which had been labeled aggravated murder in the ruling. Rivera’s release, which comes after having spent four years in prison, brings hope to the many women incarcerated for abortion charges in El Salvador.

In 2011, Rivera was rushed to the hospital after she began bleeding at home, the result of an apparent miscarriage. (She didn’t even know she was pregnant at the time.) As Al Jazeera’s Anastasia Moloney reports:

When Maria Teresa Rivera suffered a miscarriage three-years ago, she was handcuffed to a hospital bed, surrounded by seven policemen, charged with murder and sent to jail.

Rivera is among hundreds of women believed wrongly jailed in El Salvador for defying a ban on abortion, accused of inducing abortions when in fact they suffered miscarriages, stillbirths, or pregnancy complications, women’s rights groups say.

In 2011, following an eight-month trial in which the judge refused to hear testimonies from any friends and family, Rivera was served with a 40-year sentence for “perinatal asphyxia,” a medical condition where the fetus does not receive enough oxygen. In a video released in 2014, Rivera tearfully recounts never being allowed to see any autopsy documents. She also claims that, after being transported from the hospital to prison, she was denied medication for her hemorrhaging and fever (she was still reeling from the miscarriage).

But on Friday, the judge ruled that there indeed was fault in the initial autopsy, and “there is no evidence established that determines it was her that removed her son’s life.”

Though El Salvador currently has some of the most severe abortion laws in the world, that wasn’t always the case. Between 1973 and 1998, abortion was legal under specific circumstances: in the event of pregnancy as a result of rape and statutory rape, if an abortion was necessary to save the woman’s life, or in order to avoid giving birth to a child with a possible life-threatening deformity. That changed in 1998 with Article 133, a law ruling that an abortion under any circumstances would automatically result in a two- to eight-year prison sentence. In the case of Rivera, however, the aggravated murder charge increased her sentence to 40 years.

Rivera is one of at least 24 women in El Salvador who have been charged with aggravated murder after their miscarriage, according to the Civic Association for the Decriminalization of Abortion. Rivera is the seventh to appeal the charge and be granted release from prison. (Before her, there was Carmen Guadalupe Vásquez Aldana, who, after spending nearly six years behind bars, was released in 2015. Vásquez, raped by an employer when she was 18, had originally been sentenced to 30 years in prison.)

Restrictive abortion laws are not equated with lower abortion rates. In fact, between 2005 and 2008, the Ministry of Health reported 19,290 abortions in El Salvador. According to the World Health Organization, at least 11 percent of women die from clandestine abortions in the country.

The testimonies of four doctors ultimately won Rivera back her freedom. The medical professionals clarified in court the term “perinatal asphyxia,” explaining that perinatal asphyxia can occur naturally, and is not indicative of an attempt at an abortion.

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