Abortion in El Salvador: I / A Court HR condemns the State for the case of Manuela, a woman criminalized after suffering an obstetric emergency

Representantes del Colectivo Feminista asisten a a la audiencia de la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos en marzo de 2021. Getty Images

Representatives of the Feminist Collective attend the hearing of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in March 2021. Getty Images

It is a historic failure.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) condemned El Salvador for the criminalization of a woman who sought reproductive health services in the midst of an obstetric emergency.

Manuela, the name that has been given to the case to protect the woman’s identity, died in 2010 of lymphatic cancer, handcuffed to a hospital bed, after two years of suffering all kinds of violations, according to the IACHR ruled this Tuesday. .

She was an illiterate, low-income woman who lived in a rural area with her family, which included two young children.

On February 27, 2008, she was treated at the San Francisco Gotera Hospital, a town in the east of the country, where medical personnel concluded that she had had severe postpartum pre-eclampsia, complicated by anemia caused by considerable blood loss.

The doctor who treated her filed a complaint with the judicial authorities against Manuela since her medical chart showed the existence of a childbirth.

On February 28, 2008, the police raided Manuela’s home and found the body of a stillborn newborn in a septic tank. Manuela was arrested that same day for the crime of “homicide to the detriment of her newborn son.”

And in August of that same year, Manuela was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the crime of aggravated homicide.

The State, responsible

In the ruling notified to the parties on Tuesday, the Inter-American Court, based in Costa Rica, declared the State of El Salvador internationally responsible for violations of personal liberty, judicial guarantees, equality before the law, the right to life, personal integrity, private life, and health, to the detriment of Manuela, as well as the violation of the right to personal integrity, to the detriment of this woman’s relatives, according to the Efe news agency.

It is the first time that an international court has directly pointed out the obstacles women face in accessing reproductive health services in El Salvador, one of the few countries in the world that still penalize under any circumstance the voluntary interruption of pregnancy.

IACHR Hearing

Getty Images
The Center for Reproductive Rights and the Feminist Collective are the organizations behind the lawsuit before the Inter-American Court.

“Since the absolute criminalization of abortion came into force in El Salvador, women who have suffered miscarriages and other obstetric emergencies have been criminalized. In many cases, these women are prosecuted and convicted of aggravated homicide.Therefore, the sentence is between 30 and 50 years in prison, ”the Inter-American Court explained in the ruling.

“Most of the women prosecuted for these acts have little or no economic income, come from rural or marginal urban areas and have low schooling. The facts of this case are framed within that context, ”he added.

The Inter-American Court concluded that the imposition of preventive detention was “arbitrary” and violated the right to the presumption of innocence, and that in the judicial process against Manuela the public defense “acted to the detriment of her rights and interests, leaving her in a state of defenseless ”.

The judges also found the lack of a proper investigation, which was based on “Prejudices and negative gender stereotypes”.

‘There should be no criminal sanction’

Referring to the 30-year prison sentence, the Inter-American Court indicated that obstetric emergencies, because they are a medical condition, cannot automatically generate a criminal sanction, and warned that the application of the penalty for aggravated homicide in this case is “Clearly disproportionate”.

Pro-life caravan in El Salvador.

The ban on abortion in El Salvador generates a wide division in the country, with strong pro-life organizations defending its criminalization.

Additionally, the Court found it proven that the complaint filed by the doctor who treated her breached the obligation to maintain professional secrecy and to protect sensitive personal data.

The Court ordered the Salvadoran State, among other things, to carry out a public act of recognition of international responsibility, regulate the obligation to maintain professional medical secrecy and the confidentiality of the clinical history, develop an action protocol for the care of women who require emergency medical attention for obstetric emergencies, and adapt its regulation regarding the dosimetry of the sentence of the infanticide.

It extends to Latin America and the Caribbean

A statement from the colliding organizations in the Manuela case published this Tuesday after the ruling was known maintains that the obstacles that exist in that country to access reproductive health give rise to violations of the rights to life, health, protections and judicial guarantees, to be free from discrimination and gender violence, among others.

“Finally Justice has been done. El Salvador must assume its responsibility for Manuela’s death, repair her mother, father and children and implement various structural measures so that no other woman repeats her case, “said Catalina Martínez Coral, regional director of the Center, in a statement. Reproductive Rights, one of the competing organizations before the Inter-American Court.

“The Court’s decision also recognizes rights that must be applied in Latin America and the Caribbean,” he added.

“Due to the law that prohibits abortion in all cases, El Salvador imposes harsh criminal penalties on women and medical personnel. Thus the unjust imprisonment of many women is motivated after complications and natural loss of their pregnancies.

For her part, Morena Herrera, from the Feminist Collective for Local Development, said that Manuela’s story “is a sad story” but that it represents “a change.”

“It becomes a path of justice and hope for all women in Latin America and the Caribbean who are criminalized for obstetric events,” she explained.

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