The XX Factor

Women Jailed for Miscarriages in El Salvador

A woman participates in a march on the International Day of Action for the Decriminalization of Abortion on Sept.28, 2012, in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Photo by Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images

El Salvador received plenty of international attention this summer for its strict ban on abortion, which led the government to deny an abortion to a woman who was near death and whose pregnancy had no chance in resulting in a live baby. The government eventually allowed her to end her pregnancy, as long as it was performed in the maximally dangerous way through cesarean section, but that doesn’t mean that things are getting any better for women in El Salvador. As the BBC reported on Thursday, one major side effect of the country’s anti-abortion law is that women are being jailed simply because their bodies failed to sustain a pregnancy. Showing up at a public hospital with a miscarriage is risky business in El Salvador, because instead of medical care, you might find yourself being cuffed to the bed and accused of “murder.”

According to BBC reporter Nina Lakhani, 19-year-old Glenda Xiomara Cruz showed up at the public hospital near her home, “crippled by abdominal pain and heavy bleeding” in October 2012. “It was the first she knew about the pregnancy as her menstrual cycle was unbroken, her weight practically unchanged, and a pregnancy test in May 2012 had been negative,” Lakhani writes. “Four days later she was charged with aggravated murder—intentionally murdering the 38-to-42 week foetus—at a court hearing she was too sick to attend. The hospital had reported her to the police for a suspected abortion.” Cruz was eventually moved to a women’s prison in San Salvador. Then, writes Lakhani, “last month she was sentenced to 10 years in jail, the judge ruling that she should have saved the baby’s life.”

So a woman shows up at the hospital seeking treatment for miscarriage and the hospital staff decides that she is faking and actually got an abortion. Cruz’s defense attorney, Dennis Munoz Estanley, has taken up the cause, representing 29 of the 49 women convicted of murder or abortion in 2011. Of his clients, he says, only one actually procured an abortion. The other 28 were women he claims had miscarriages and are railroaded by a criminal justice system that needs women to make examples of to prove it’s tough on abortion. 

This entire situation is an inevitable result of pressure to show that the abortion ban is being enforced. With the widespread availability of abortion drugs, the only place to catch women who have had abortions is at the hospital, if they show up for treatment for complications. Problem is that there’s no way to tell a miscarriage from a medically induced abortion. So, it’s inevitable that miscarriages will get rounded up to illegal abortion. 

This kind of situation could easily arise in the U.S. if abortion is banned here. All you need is a conservative doctor plus a miscarrying patient who triggers that doctor’s bigotries—likely, the same poor, unmarried, or poorly educated women that are enduring this treatment in El Salvador. Women in the U.S. have been arrested for stillbirth, usually because it’s blamed on drug use, but in one case, because the woman refused a C-section. Since many to most black-market abortions would likely be from illegally obtained misoprostol, and since there’s no simple test to determine if a woman is miscarrying because her body rejected the pregnancy or because she herself did with that drug, the only real way to enforce an abortion ban is to send women to jail for suspected abortions.