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El Salvador shows what happens when a country has an absolute ban on abortion

Imelda Cortez stands accused of trying to end her pregnancy, despite giving birth to a healthy baby girl.

Salvadoran women take part in a demonstration to demand the decriminalization of abortion, outside the Legislative Assembly in San Salvador on February 23, 2017. (Photo CREDIT: MARVIN Recinos/AFP/Getty Images)
Salvadoran women take part in a demonstration to demand the decriminalization of abortion, outside the Legislative Assembly in San Salvador on February 23, 2017. (Photo CREDIT: MARVIN Recinos/AFP/Getty Images)

With the appointment of conservative Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, reproductive rights advocates in the United States are now worried more than ever that Roe v. Wade, the case that guaranteed abortion rights to people in the United States, will be overturned.

For a glimpse of what awaits the U.S. if it continues along this path, it’s worth looking at what’s unfolding in El Salvador.

Reproductive rights have long been an issue in El Salvador, where a current case highlights the alarming direction of abortion rights in Latin America.

Imelda Cortez, 20, had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather, Pablo Henriquez, between the ages of 12 and 18.

In April 2017, she started suffering abdominal cramps and felt a pressure in her uterus as she began to bleed profusely before she lost consciousness.

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Cortez, who lives in La Paz, was taken to the hospital by her mother and a neighbor, where the medical staff determined that Cortez had aborted a pregnancy, which is a crime in El Salvador.

In fact, the country has imposed a total ban on abortions since 1998, no exceptions. It is one of 26 countries in the world with such strict regulations.

El Salvador prosecutes those even suspected of having an abortion. This means that people like Cortez, who are seeking obstetric treatment, might have to somehow prove that they have not terminated a pregnancy at any point. Even if a patient has suffered a miscarriage or a stillbirth, they can still be charged with a crime.

Cortez was reported to the police, despite the fact that she had, in fact, given birth prematurely at home that day (to her stepfather’s child, as proven later by a DNA test). And that baby was home, safe, and very much alive.

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According to Paula Avila-Guillen, a human rights legal expert and the Director of Latin America Initiatives for the Women’s Equality Center who is in touch with Cortez’s attorney (ThinkProgress was unable to reach her directly), Cortez was almost eight months pregnant but might not have been fully aware of it.

A few months before this, a doctor had determined that she had a sexually transmitted infection and was anemic. The doctor refused to give her treatment for either, telling Imelda and her mother that she was pregnant. But the stepfather convinced Imelda’s mom that it was a lie, claiming he was sterile.

He then continued to rape Cortez while she was pregnant and ill.

Despite the lack of any evidence showing that Cortez ever attempted to end the pregnancy or harm her baby after it was born, she remains incarcerated and facing a charge of aggravated homicide.

Henriquez, it should be noted, is currently incarcerated and might be charged with two crimes: The rape of a minor, and the rape of an adult. He has not been formally charged, as of yet.

That Cortez is seen as the victim in the charges against her stepfather, but still remains the accused of crime in her own is a peculiar characteristic of this sort of system, where a person is victimized first by a rapist, and then by a system that criminalizes them for wanting to take control of their bodies.

Though, in Cortez’s case, there is no evidence that she tried to end her pregnancy.

Avila-Guillen told ThinkProgress that Cortez’s lawyer will argue that her client never had any intention of ending a pregnancy.

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“In order to commit the crime of tentative homicide — of which she is being accused — you need action and intention,” said Avila-Guillen, answering questions via email.

“Here there is not action or intention [therefore] there is not crime. There would also be presented expert testimony of the consequences of trauma emotional, mental and physical and how that can affect a women that is being constantly [raped] while pregnant,” she added.

Cortez’s hearing is set for Monday November 12 in Usulután, where reproductive rights advocates hope a judge will throw out the charges.

If not, Cortez faces a lengthy prison sentence.

There are at least 25 women in El Salvador currently serving decades-long prison sentences on similar charges.

A couple have managed to appeal and have their sentences overturned, such as Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, who was facing a 30-year sentence. By the time she was released in February, she had already served 11 years for suffering a miscarriage of a nearly full-term pregnancy.

The country’s legislature in April had the chance to change the law, adding exceptions to the abortion ban when the health of the mother is at risk or in the case of incest.

But it chose not to do so.

At present, Cortez is being held in prison in San Miguel. She has seen her baby a couple of times, at a distance. She has yet to be allowed to touch or hold her daughter.