Cristina was 18 years old when something went wrong with her pregnancy. Her family found her in the bathroom, unconscious and covered in blood, and rushed her to a hospital. When she got there, hospital staff asked her, “Why did you kill your child?” She was sentenced to 30 years in prison for trying to have an illegal abortion.
That’s just one of the stories collected in a new report about a country with one of the harshest abortion bans in the world. Cristina lives in El Salvador, where abortion is illegal for any reason — even in cases where it’s necessary to save a woman’s life — and where women are frequently jailed for illegally ending their pregnancies.
Officials from Amnesty International, the group that released the report on Thursday, call the grim reality facing women in El Salvador “truly shocking and akin to torture.” And disturbingly, there are aspects of El Salvador’s policies that resemble what’s facing some pregnant people in the United States.
“One way in which El Salvador is very different from other countries with complete bans on abortions is this demonstrated record of going out and prosecuting women,” Larry Ladutke, who serves as the country’s specialist at Amnesty International, told ThinkProgress in an interview. “That includes women and girl who are accused of having had an abortion, but also women and girls who have had miscarriages and are then charged with aggravated homicide.”
In El Salvador, women like Cristina can be sentenced to decades in prison after being charged with killing a family member, which carries a harsher sentence than other types of homicide. Often, there’s no clear evidence they actually did anything to cause harm to their fetuses; miscarriage, after all, is a relatively common experience for pregnant women. Human rights lawyers have been working to overturn the sentences on those grounds. Cristina served four years before her own sentence was thrown out.
While that’s certainly extreme, it’s not entirely unheard of in the developed world. Here in the U.S., even though abortion is legal under most circumstances, women are increasingly being charged under allegations that they intentionally harmed their pregnancies. This can occur if a woman is accused of using drugs while she is pregnant, even if there’s no scientific evidence that the drug will pose long-term harm to the fetus. It can also occur in cases when women are suspected of having an illegal abortion.
In one recent case in Mississippi, for example, a 16-year-old mother faced a potential life sentence for giving birth to a stillborn child. She was accused of “unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously” causing her child’s death by using cocaine, even though it’s not clear that cocaine poses a risk to pregnancy outcomes in the first place. In another case in Montana, a woman was charged with child endangerment when she was just 12 weeks pregnant, effectively blurring the lines between women’s rights and fetuses’ rights.
That’s why advocates argue that the trend of criminalizing pregnant women — there are “fetal homicide” laws on the books in 38 U.S. states, and they’re increasingly used to prosecute women for their own behavior during pregnancy — represents a dangerous threat. Just like in El Salvador, they make women more vulnerable for prosecution simply because of their gender.
“They violate people’s rights, and even more so women’s rights, because a man is never going to have a miscarriage,” Cristina told Amnesty International in an interview included in the new report. “This has got to be underlined: the issue is women’s inequality.”
The dynamic also has a serious impact on women’s ability to seek medical care. According to the Guttmacher Institute, approximately 40 percent of the women who have illegal abortions experience complications that require follow-up treatment. But if they’re worried about getting in trouble with the law, they might not want to show up at a hospital asking for help.
“Medical professionals in El Salvador have been filing complaints and providing evidence against women who they suspect of having had an abortion,” Ladutke told ThinkProgress. “So then it becomes a question: Do I go to the doctor and risk going to jail, or do I wait and see and potentially risk my life?”
Doctors here in the United States also may notify authorities if they suspect a woman did something to illegally end her pregnancy. A woman in Indiana, for example, is currently facing decades in prison after she sought treatment in a hospital for a miscarriage. Her doctors called the police, who found her fetus in a dumpster. A women in Pennsylvania is currently serving jail time for giving her daughter abortion-inducing drugs that she bought online, something she didn’t realize was illegal at the time. Although her daughter didn’t have any adverse side effects, a doctor reported them to the state’s child-protective services when she sought follow-up treatment for the bleeding that can result from either this type of abortion or from a miscarriage.
Ladutke pointed out that women should not have to fear going to her doctor and seeking emergency attention after having a clandestine abortion. Medical experts make the same arguments about women here in the U.S., who are increasingly being dissuaded from seeking medical treatment because of the laws that threaten to criminalize pregnancy. “If we want pregnant women to obtain prenatal care and drug-treatment therapies, they have to trust that a trip to the doctor won’t end with the police at her doorstep,” reproductive health activists in Montana pointed out after the arrest of the pregnant woman who was just 12 weeks along.
“No one should have a criminal record for having had an abortion,” Ladutke, whose organization is hoping to put international pressure on the Salvadoran government to relax its abortion ban and review the cases of the women who still imprisoned, said. But with an increasing number of U.S. states finding ways to prosecute women for their pregnancy outcomes, that’s not necessarily a guarantee here at home either.