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  • A “Witch Hunt against Poor Women”:Across the Americas, abortion laws are harming health and security
  • Angelika Albaladejo (bio)

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In 2011, Maria Teresa Rivera woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed. Earlier that day, suffering stomach cramps, she had gone to the latrine in her backyard and collapsed. Her mother-in-law had found her, lying in a pool of blood, and rushed her to the hospital. [End Page 26]

The 27-year-old Salvadoran garment worker and single mother had miscarried without ever knowing she was pregnant. But when she regained consciousness, she learned that hospital staff had suspected her of inducing an abortion and reported her to the police. The next day, still nauseated and feverish, she was moved to a jail cell. A few months later, a judge sentenced her to the maximum punishment for murder: 40 years in prison.

Maria Teresa is not alone. Across the Americas, restrictive reproductive rights laws are harming women’s health and security, offering a picture of what the United States could look like if Donald Trump’s administration has its way. Strict statutes paired with inequality and generalized violence strip women of control over their bodies and impede access to health care, especially for those in the poorest communities. “The women who are already in vulnerable situations are always going to suffer the most,” said Paula Avila-Guillen, an attorney and programs specialist for the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global advocacy group based in New York City. “The discrepancies in the level of access are really just outrageous, and it becomes even more worrisome when it comes to access to reproductive health services.”

Seven countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have complete bans on abortion, including the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Chile, and Suriname. But nowhere in the region is the criminalization of women’s bodies more visible than in El Salvador. The smallest and most densely populated country in Central America used to have a three-exception rule common in other Latin American countries. Women could seek out an abortion in cases of rape, if the fetus had severe defects, or when the pregnancy posed a risk to the mother’s life. But, fueled by a pro-life lobby backed by socially conservative politicians and the Catholic Church, “all of those exceptions were stricken from the books in 1998,” explained Charles Abbott, senior legal adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean for the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Since 2000, at least 129 women have been prosecuted for abortion-related crimes in El Salvador. The most notorious cases are those of Las 17—a group of women, which includes Maria Teresa, who were sentenced to more than 30 years for having a miscarriage or stillbirth. While still known as Las 17, the group has grown to include at least 25 women, most of whom worked low-income jobs, lived in poor or rural areas, and had little education or were illiterate. Dennis Muñoz, a lawyer who has represented several of Las 17, has described the abortion policy as a “witch hunt against poor women.”

A decade-long international campaign by women’s rights groups and human rights lawyers—including the Center for Reproductive Rights and the San Salvador-based Citizens’ Association for the Decriminalization of Abortion—has kept a spotlight on cases like Maria Teresa’s while pushing for the release of Las 17 and reforms to the total ban on abortion. After four years of domestic and international pressure, Maria Teresa was set free in May 2016.

A new judge reviewed her case and determined that serious “judicial error” in her trial had resulted in a conviction without a motive or evidence of wrongdoing. “The general picture is one of a complete lack of due process starting with the beginning of the investigation, [followed by] a very serious combination of human rights violations that can lead to up to 40 years in prison,” Abbott said.

“When they told me I was free, I did not have words. I felt happy, because I was going to see my son,” Maria Teresa said in a letter to supporters...


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pp. 26-34
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