(PRESS RELEASE) The Salvadoran government has been ordered to respond to human rights violations and its role in the death of a woman known as “Manuela” who miscarried, was wrongfully accused of seeking an unsafe abortion, was sent to prison and died less than a year later behind bars from untreated Hodgkins lymphoma.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—the main human rights body for the Americas—issued a formal letter to the Salvadoran government yesterday requesting a response to a petition filed by the Center, La Agrupación Ciudadana and CDFA in March 2010 regarding the multiple human rights violations “Manuela” suffered because of the country’s absolute abortion ban.
For more than 16 years, El Salvador has criminalized abortion in all circumstances--even when necessary to save a woman’s life—imposing harsh criminal penalties on both women and physicians. The ban has resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of countless women who have suffered pregnancy-related complications and miscarriages, who are then charged for having an abortion and wrongfully convicted of homicide.
Said Mónica Arango, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights:
“This is a vital breakthrough in bringing the government of El Salvador to account for the devastation it has brought about in the lives of countless women and families under its horrifically unjust abortion laws.
“Pregnant women should never fear for their life or freedom when they go to a hospital for essential medical care, but that’s the hostile situation women face under El Salvador’s absolute abortion ban.
“Manuela’s imprisonment and death are emblematic of the suffering of many others, and though it is too late to deliver justice to her personally, we can stop the injustices that too many others in El Salvador will continue to endure as long as this law remains in place.
“We will continue to press on in Manuela’s name to hold the Salvadoran government accountable for its role in these human rights abuses, and to finally bring an end to its destructive anti-abortion laws.”
Manuela was a 33-year-old Salvadoran woman and mother of two young children who suffered a complication giving birth during her third trimester. From the moment she arrived at the hospital, doctors treated her as if she had attempted an abortion and immediately called the police. She was shackled to her hospital bed and accused of murder. She was convicted to 30 years in prison without ever having had a chance to meet with her lawyer, and without having an opportunity to speak in her own defense.
After several months in prison, it was discovered that Manuela had advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a disease that could have been treated earlier had medical officials paid any attention to her condition. When she finally received chemotherapy it was too little, too late. Manuela died in jail in 2010.
“If Manuela had not died in prison, today she would be one of Las17,” said Morena Herrera, Executive Director of CDFA.
In December, a coalition of NGOs led by Agrupación Ciudadana and the Center for Reproductive Rights, launched the “Las17” online campaign calling for the release of “Guadalupe” and 16 other Salvadoran women who all suffered obstetric emergencies, were charged for having an abortion and were later convicted of homicide. “Mirna,” one of “Las 17” was released in December after serving her prison sentence before her pardon could be finalized. The remaining 15 women are each currently serving 30-40 year sentences.
The Center for Reproductive Rights has worked for more than 12 years to expose the consequences that the blanket abortion ban in El Salvador has on the lives of women. Recently, the Center and CDFA co-authored the report Marginalized, Persecuted and Imprisoned: The Effects of El Salvador’s Total Criminalization of Abortion that documents the human rights consequences of the abortion ban, and includes the personal stories of five women who were unfairly prosecuted for illegal abortion after suffering obstetric emergencies without receiving medical attention. The report analyzes how El Salvador’s health, judicial and prison systems fail to guarantee pregnant women’s human rights.