The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women serving decades-long prison terms for abortion in El Salvador hope change is coming

Alba Lorena Rodríguez poses for a portrait inside of Ilopango women’s prison on Sept. 3. (Fred Ramos/For The Washington Post)

SAN SALVADOR — Alba Lorena Rodríguez was five months pregnant when she started to feel sharp pains in her stomach while at home in December 2009. She fainted.

When she awoke, she says, she realized she had lost her baby.

Rodríguez, now 39, says she had a miscarriage. But the state accused her of killing the fetus, and she was convicted of aggravated homicide in a suspected abortion case. She denies having an abortion and says she mourned her miscarriage.

“Tell me, if I had intended to kill the baby, would I have held a vigil?” Rodríguez said during an interview at Ilopango women’s prison on the outskirts of San Salvador, where she has served eight years of a 30-year sentence.

Rodríguez is one of at least 25 women who have been incarcerated — many facing decades-long sentences — since El Salvador made abortion illegal under all circumstances in 1998. Most of these women claim to have had late-term obstetric emergencies or stillbirths. Many have been separated from their children while in prison.

Two of them were released this year after they successfully appealed their convictions. Now, Rodríguez is petitioning to have her sentence shortened based on a lack of evidence. Lawyers, activists and legislators are hoping the rulings to release these women will eventually translate into a more lenient abortion law.

El Salvador is one of 26 countries with an absolute ban on abortions, and its battle over abortion rights is echoed around the globe, with several countries grappling with changes to legislation. Ireland, Brazil and Chile, among others, have made moves to loosen restrictions on abortion in recent months.

In other places, including ­Poland and parts of the United States, abortion rights are facing renewed challenges. In August, legislators in Argentina voted by a narrow margin against legalizing abortion for pregnancies of up to 14 weeks.

In El Salvador, Rodríguez is part of a group of women referred to as “Las 17” — “The Seventeen” — for the 17 identified cases of women imprisoned under the country’s abortion laws when the campaign to release them began in 2013.

Victor Hugo Mata, a lawyer with the Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, which works to free the women, said he thinks bias plays into ­judges’ decisions to condemn these women.

“When [these types of miscarriages] happen to a woman, judges assume it’s because there’s something more there. To them, it’s not possible that they could be innocent,” Mata said. “There are very few judges who see it differently.”

Rodríguez said she was barely given a chance to speak at her trial. Her attorney, a public defender she had met that day, knew few details about her case, she said. On July 15, 2010, Rodríguez was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Thousands of Salvadoran women have abortions each year. The most recent statistics from the Salvadoran Health Ministry report an estimated 19,290 clandestine abortions from 2005 to 2008. Women who can afford it pay for abortions at private clinics or travel outside the country to have an abortion, according to activists.

The Salvadoran state has started to review cases and release some of the imprisoned women. In ­February, Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was released after 10 years behind bars for aggravated homicide for what she says was a late-term miscarriage.

After reviewing Vásquez’s case, the Salvadoran Supreme Court ­determined that there was not enough evidence to prove that she had caused harm to the fetus. The court stated that “justice, equity and other legal reasons” led to the decision to commute her sentence.

One month later, in March, Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín, who was accused of aggravated homicide in 2003 at age 19, was released when the Salvadoran Justice Ministry determined that her charges were “excessive and immoral.”

The Citizens’ Group has been successful in securing the release of some women, but passing progressive legislation has been more challenging.

Two proposals in El Salvador’s legislature this spring gave abortion rights activists new hope.

Johnny Wright Sol, a member of the right-wing ARENA party, broke with his party line to introduce a bill that would legalize abortions in two cases — the rape of a minor and when the mother’s life or health is in danger.

A bill by Lorena Peña of the left-wing FMLN party went further, proposing that abortions be allowed in all cases of rape and cases of an unviable fetus.

In April, evangelical and Catholic groups showed their dis­approval for the proposals in a “March for Life” through the streets of San Salvador.

“We see the legislation proposed in our country, proposed by representatives from FMLN, mainly Lorena Peña, to depenalize abortion as a danger and a threat,” evangelical pastor Numa Rodezno, one of the organizers, told local media on the day of the march.

But the two proposals were not brought for a vote before the Salvadoran national assembly. On May 1, new representatives took office, and the right-wing ARENA party, which now holds the most seats in the assembly, is unlikely to consider any measures decriminalizing abortion.

Yet activists believe the proposals contributed to a shift in attitudes on abortion in El Salvador. A 2018 public opinion poll by the University of Central America showed that more than 50 percent of Salvadorans support legalizing abortion when a mother’s life is in danger or when the fetus is not viable.

“The discussion in the public sphere generated by the proposals to depenalize abortion has caused other people and groups, besides just the feminist groups that were already talking about the issue, to take a stand,” said Sara García of the Citizens’ Group.

As of September, Rodríguez remains behind bars while awaiting a decision on her appeal. She said the worst part of being imprisoned is being separated from her two daughters, now 10 and 14.

“My daughters always ask me, ‘When are you going to leave here, Mom? When are you going to be home with us?’ ” Rodríguez said. “And I tell them that I’m leaving soon and that I’m going to be with them soon.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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