When Cristina Quintanilla was seven months pregnant, she experienced an unexpected, painful miscarriage. After being rushed to the hospital by her mother and operated on, she awoke from a fog of anesthesia to a man in blue asking her questions.
“For a minute I thought he was one of the operating doctors,” she said. But after drowsily answering his questions, Quintanilla realized he was a police officer. He had come to arrest her for intentionally killing her unborn baby.
“I was in shock. I couldn’t talk,” she said.
Quintanilla lives in El Salvador — a country with one of the harshest laws against abortion in the world. For more than 16 years, the country’s government has criminalized abortion in all cases, even when a pregnancy resulted from rape or puts a woman’s life at risk. On top of that, women like Quintanilla whose pregnancies end in a miscarriage can be sentenced to jail for up to 50 years for “aggravated homicide” — a piece of the law that Quintanilla had no idea existed.
Nearly four years after her incarceration, Quintanilla was released early, after her lawyer found a violation of due process in her case. Now, she’s bringing her story and demands to the United States.
On Monday morning, Quintanilla — along with representatives from the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and Agrupación Ciudadana, a Salvadoran abortion decriminalization group — testified in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in D.C., in the hopes of attracting U.S. legal intervention.
This tactic has be successful in the past. Between 1999 and 2011, a group of 17 women known as “Las 17” were sentenced to up to 40 years in prison for having miscarriages. In 2014, two of Las 17 were released — the first after both the Human Rights Congressional Committee and the Supreme Court Committee submitted recommendations for her release, and the second for simply reaching the end of her sentence. Prior to their releases, the United Nations and 12 countries outside of the U.N. also came out in defense of Las 17.
CREDIT: Center for Reproductive Rights
Quintanilla said she’s speaking to both bring justice to the remaining Las 17 and quash the harmful law once and for all. “I don’t want my story [to be] repeated,” she said. “As a consequence of the total ban, I suffered in prison, at the hospital—it negatively affected all aspects of my life. I don’t want to see any more women being mistreated and persecuted because of this unjust law.”
Paula Avila-Guillen, Advocacy Adviser for Latin America & the Caribbean at CRR, has been working to fight the abortion ban in El Salvador since 1999. She said that Monday’s hearing couldn’t come at a better time, since abortion has become a recent point of contention in U.S. politics. Along with Congressional debate over national access to reproductive health care, many new restrictions on the state level seek to limit abortion, including a major Texas law that’s making its way up to the Supreme Court.
“We hope our testimony will ring some bells. The cases in El Salvador shine a light on what happens to a country when laws don’t respect human rights, women’s rights,” she said. “They only create more stigma, more violation.”
She and the other testifiers hope this week’s hearing will result in the U.S. Supreme Court reviewing at least one of their two requests: Releasing the remaining Las 17, or abolishing the abortion ban altogether.
Most of the Las 17 women are impoverished and largely uneducated about the legal system, said Avila-Guillen, which only adds to their disadvantage. Quintanilla said that the lawyer assigned to her by the government couldn’t have cared less about her situation.
“I didn’t know and wasn’t made aware of my legal options,” she said. “I don’t even think my lawyer had read my case file before arriving at my hearing. She even asked me what my name was again before it started.”
In a report by CRR, Quintanilla also explained how other inmates insulted and beat her and other women who were convicted for abortion. She also experienced sexual abuse from prison guards while incarcerated. She says she is still shunned in her community for being accused of having an abortion.
“It’s always important to remember that these are real women, with real problems,” Avila-Guillen said. “With all of this international pressure, I think we can at least give them hope. Let them know they are no longer alone.”