Imelda Cortez woke up one morning nearly two years ago with a horrible pain in her stomach. She rushed to a nearby latrine, where she gave birth to a baby girl, and then passed out. She had become pregnant at 17, after her stepfather repeatedly raped her. When her mother took her to a hospital to seek attention for bleeding, doctors suspected she had tried to have an abortion, which is illegal under any circumstances in her home country of El Salvador.
Now, Cortez, who says she never tried to terminate her pregnancy, is in prison awaiting trial for attempted murder. That trial was scheduled to begin Nov. 12, but a Salvadoran judge postponed it to Dec. 17 after one of the prosecutors failed to show up, citing health reasons. Critics say the court purposely pushed the date closer to the Christmas holiday in hopes it would receive less international attention.
If convicted, Cortez could face up to 20 years behind bars.
El Salvador is one of the most strictly antiabortion countries in the world. In 1998, the country passed an absolute ban on abortion, making the procedure illegal even in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother. Since the law’s passage, more than 40 women have been convicted on abortion-related charges, and more than 20 of those women remain in prison.
Paula Avila-Guillen, director of Latin American initiatives at the Women’s Equality Center, a group involved in Cortez’s case, said the law makes doctors suspicious whenever women seek medical attention for any form of obstetric emergency such as a miscarriage or a stillbirth. “Doctors feel the pressure to denounce anybody seeking medical attention who could be under suspicion of having an abortion,” Avila-Guillen told The Washington Post.
This year, it seemed, El Salvador was shifting toward softening its stance on abortion. At least two women serving abortion-related sentences were released from prison, and others have had their sentences shortened. But the postponement of Cortez’s case — the only new case this year — has left advocates discouraged.
“It takes practically the mobilization of the entire world to save one of these women at a time,” Avila-Guillen said. “The system keeps failing her over and over.”
Cortez waits in prison for her next court date as her daughter, now nearly 2, stays with Cortez’s mother.