Lost babies, lost rights: Draconian laws are criminalising women who suffer miscarriage and stillbirth

By Kerry Moscogiuri, Campaigns Director, Amnesty International UK

Imagine carrying a baby for weeks or even months – feeling it grow, kick, hiccup and turn – and then suffering a miscarriage or stillbirth.

For Teodora Vasquez, as well as many thousands of women around the world each year, this is a deeply painful reality. But 37-year-old Teodora is suffering a disturbing double ordeal: both the grief that comes with losing a pregnancy and the torment of being imprisoned for her daughter’s murder.

In 2007 Teodora suffered a stillbirth and, despite scant evidence, was convicted of ‘aggravated homicide’. Last week, a court in El Salvador upheld her sentence of 30 years imprisonment.

Teodora says she was at work when she began to suffer intense pain and started bleeding. She called an ambulance and then collapsed shortly after. When she regained consciousness, she said she found herself surrounded by police who accused her of murdering her daughter by inducing an abortion.

Since her initial trial, which was marred with irregularities, she has spent almost a decade in jail. She will now serve a further 20 years, after the court rejected her appeal, saying it will continue to rely on the government autopsy’s conclusion that the girl was born alive and then asphyxiated. Teodora and her lawyers insist she delivered a stillborn baby, saying the scientific data has not been fully analysed.

Teodora’s case is not unique. The country’s laws continue to punish women and girls for medical complications during their pregnancies.

In 1998, a change in the penal code saw a blanket ban on abortion in El Salvador – even in cases of rape, incest, when a woman’s health or life is at risk, or in cases of severe and fatal foetal impairment. This change in legislation has also led to the wrongful prosecutions of women, who are immediately assumed guilty of murder or abortion when they have suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Penalties are severe, ranging from two to eight years in custody for both women and those who help them, and with longer sentences of six to 12 years for health professionals. In the most extreme cases, women like Teodora have been imprisoned on charges of aggravated homicide, which carries a penalty of up 50 years in prison.

According to the El Salvador-based Citizens’ Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Abortion, 129 women were prosecuted for abortion-related crimes in the country between 2000 and 2011.

Teodora is just one of 17 women who between 1999 and 2011 were sentenced to up to 40 years in jail following reported miscarriage or stillbirth, mostly on charges of aggravated homicide. Official statistics are unavailable, but Amnesty estimates that at least five more women currently await sentencing on similar pregnancy-related charges in the country.

Teodora del Carmen Vásquez
© Amnesty International

Wealthier Salvadorans can pay for private healthcare or seek medical care abroad, but women with few economic resources are particularly affected by the ban. Most frequently, the law’s victims are patients in the country’s public clinics where doctors, fearing prosecution, call the police when a woman arrives in pain.

And El Salvador is by no means the only country where women are imprisoned for pregnancy complications. In Argentina, a woman known only as Belén was sentenced to eight years for aggravated murder after a miscarriage in 2016. She was acquitted on appeal by a regional high court in 2017.

In the USA, a 2013 study carried out by the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, laid bare a number of cases in which pregnant women were arrested and detained for complications during pregnancy, including miscarriage. Women on low incomes and African-Americans were most commonly targeted. The report found that women were denied a wide range of human rights based solely on their ‘pregnancy status’.

Restrictive and inflexible abortion laws are robbing pregnant women of their lives too. Amnesty’s Criminalising Pregnancy report, that came out earlier this year, found that US laws aiming to protect foetuses from drugs can in fact put mother and baby in danger. The fear of prosecution or loss of custody deters many women who become pregnant while using narcotics from visiting hospital when they need to.

Teodora sits in jail in El Salvador
Teodora © Amnesty International

And many women are at risk from how harsh abortion laws affect medical decision-making. In July 2012, 16-year-old Rosaura Almonte was admitted to hospital in the Dominican Republic. There she was diagnosed with leukaemia and told she required urgent life-saving medical treatment. But there was a problem: Rosaura was seven-weeks pregnant and the chemotherapy she needed would almost certainly affect the foetus she was carrying.

Because abortion is illegal in the Dominican Republic, doctors took 20 days to decide what to do before Rosaura received the chemo she desperately needed. Twenty days proved too long and the young woman died from hypovolemic shock – a complication that occurs when blood volume drops – the following month, becoming yet another victim of the cruel laws that impede sound and prompt medical judgment.

The problems surrounding restrictive reproductive rights can be found closer to home too. In Ireland, where abortion is illegal in all circumstances except where the mother’s life is at risk, similar difficulties rumble on.

Doctors, when presented with mothers needing medical treatment that could affect their baby, are forced into the difficult position of either being seen as breaking the law, or not acting in the best interest of their patient. They often wait until a woman is in serious danger before terminating a pregnancy, putting her life needlessly at even greater risk. And if a woman is carrying a foetus that is unlikely to survive, she must still carry that pregnancy to term – a traumatic experience for the woman, who may already be grappling with a devastating loss.

And despite being part of the UK, Northern Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world – carrying the harshest penalties in Europe. Here, abortion is illegal in almost every circumstance, with women potentially facing up to life in prison for having one.

Such tragic cases simply cannot be allowed to continue. Women globally are at the centre of a political and cultural battleground over sexual and reproductive rights – with the law in many cases prioritising ideology over human rights.

Women and girls are being treated as nothing more than child-bearing vessels instead of human beings entitled to rights.

In 1994, 179 governments signed the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action, committing themselves to prevent unsafe abortion. And while more than 30 countries have relaxed their abortion laws, a number have in fact tightened them. In fact most countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and southern Asia still implement oppressive abortion laws.

Amnesty firmly believes that whoever you are, wherever you live, all the decisions made about your own body should be yours. El Salvador’s total ban on abortion, alongside similar laws in other countries, is a serious human rights violation and must urgently be repealed.

Countries around the world have a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of pregnant women – whatever their circumstances or choices.

How many more women need to suffer – often in silence – or fear for their lives simply because they experience complications during pregnancy? Sadly, it seems as if there could be many, many more before any laws are overturned.

This article was originally published here at iNews UK.

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