An El Salvadorian teen was sentenced to 30 years in jail for murder on July 5, 2017. The teen’s case was determined murder after she had a stillbirth in her home after falling ill. The grounds for her conviction lay in her “failing to seek antenatal care.”
The teen, Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez Cruz, 19, who had been repeatedly raped in a forced relationship by a gang member over a series of months, did not know she was pregnant.
Hernandez’s arrest and conviction is one in a long line of women wrongfully charged and sentenced in El Salvador since the altering of the country’s abortion laws in 1998.
Abortion was permitted in cases of rape, incest, an injured fetus, or if the the life of the mother was in danger until 1998. As the result of pressure from conservative politicians and the Catholic Church, which has a major power and influence in the country, the law was altered to remove all previous exceptions. The Guardian estimated that between 1998 and 2013, over 600 women were jailed on abortion accusations. At the time, Archbishop Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, member of the far right group Opus Dei, supported this change.
In Hernandez’s case, the judge accepted the prosecutor’s claims that Hernandez “failed to seek antenatal care because she did not want the baby, and threw him into the toilet intending to kill him.” Not only did the judge accept these claims, but he also suggested that Hernandez’s mother may also be criminally responsible, as the teen supposedly could not have acted alone. Hernandez claimed to have only realized she was pregnant until the stillbirth had already occurred and her mother had taken her to the hospital for reported severe abdominal pains. According to The Guardian, “Medical experts were unable to ascertain whether the fetus died in utero or in the moments after delivery.”
Executive director of the Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion Morena Herrera believes that many verdicts are based on prejudices held by prosecutors and judges. “El Salvador justice is applied without direct proof, without sufficient evidence that clarifies what a woman has done,” Herrera said.
Hernandez was arrested after police “found the deceased fetus in the toilet” and handcuffed her to her hospital bed, where she received treatment for severe anemia and a urinary tract infection, according to the Guardian. Hernandez’s lawyer, Dennis Munoz, commented on his client’s conviction: “The judge’s verdict doesn’t reflect the evidence presented in court. It’s a decision based on morality, not the law or justice.”
While lawyers can and will appeal the verdict, Hernandez is one of many women who are fighting to be freed from these wrongful arrests.
According to The New York Times, The Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion launched a campaign to free 17 women wrongfully convicted and sentenced to prison. So far three of the 17 have been freed, with another woman to be released next year. Yet at least four other women, not including Hernandez, have been jailed since. It remains an ongoing uphill climb.
Meanwhile, Alfredo Vela Cuellar, a spokesman for Opus Dei in El Salvador, compared all abortions – even those formerly protected under the previous exceptions – as acts of violence against women. Many groups support the total ban on abortion with the belief that it somehow helps to protect women from “attacks and sexual assaults.”
The multiple anti-abortion groups in collaboration with the Church make the fight to eliminate this sexist law incredibly difficult. Carla de la Cayo, president of the Yes to Life Foundation, the largest anti-abortion advocacy organisation in the country, said, “Life is sacred – you don’t have the right to kill someone because someone else will suffer. We leave this decision to God.”
Twenty years after a 12-year civil war, El Salvador is in a very fragile state. It is currently the most dangerous peacetime country, and still clearly struggling with the establishment of equal women’s rights.
This abortion law in El Salvador actively strips women of their reproductive rights. The law was amended and brought to its current state without public debate or medical consultation concerning the health risks it could imply for women. Currently, reforms to the law, while proposed, have not gone though.
Meanwhile, women in El Salvador continue to suffer.
“I had a miscarriage,” said 19-year-old Hernandez. “The judge accused me of murder.”
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