Cristina Quintanilla’s tragic story now includes a sad epilogue.
Quintanilla was 18 when she suffered a miscarriage at her home in rural El Salvador. But when she awoke on an operating table that night in 2004, she didn’t see doctors. She saw cops.
Someone on the hospital staff had accused Quintanilla of inducing an abortion. And abortion under any circumstance is a felony in El Salvador.
“They arrested me while I was in surgery,” says Quintanilla, now 28. “I was handcuffed to the bed. They didn’t care how badly I was hemorrhaging or how terrified I was.”
Neither doctors nor prosecutors ever presented physical evidence that Quintanilla had intentionally terminated her pregnancy. She was convicted anyway – not just for abortion, but aggravated murder. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
After four years behind bars, Quintanilla was released in 2009 when a higher court ruled the punishment excessive. But her criminal record stuck – making it impossible to find a decent job.
“I had to leave,” she says. “Those years in prison, for something I didn’t do, ended my life.”
Two months ago, Quintanilla and her 4-year-old daughter came to the United States after a harrowing trek through Mexico. They now live with cousins in Chicago. “I’ve never lived in the cold,” she told me.
But Quintanilla does know what it is to live in darkness – which is the only way to describe El Salvador’s medieval abortion law.
El Salvador outlawed all abortion in 1999 – even in cases of rape, incest and when a mother’s life is in danger. Since then, scores of women like Quintanilla have been sent to prison. At least one has died there. And legal experts say all too often the only thing they’re guilty of is having miscarriages.
“Emergency rooms act as crime scenes,” says Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, a law professor at the University of Miami and an expert on women’s rights in Latin America. “Witch hunt is the correct word. And the people suffering the most are the most marginalized – young, poor, indigenous, uneducated women.”
Officials at the federal prosecutor’s office in El Salvador would not comment, despite repeated requests from WLRN. But the abortion law – arguably the world’s harshest – is finally facing condemnation both at home and abroad.
For one thing, it’s hard for even the reactionary politicians and clerics who crafted the code to explain why a country so overrun by murderous drug gangs has focused its judicial zeal on pregnant women.
What’s more, doctors and lawyers increasingly point out the hypocrisy of affluent Salvadoran women traveling abroad to have legal abortions. And they leave little doubt where those women usually go: to clinics here in South Florida.
Says Dennis Muñoz, a Salvadoran defense attorney who represents numerous women accused of abortion: “If you have the resources, you can fly your way out of the law.”
Roberto Sánchez, director of the National Women’s Hospital, agrees. “They solve the problem in Miami,” he told a Spanish news agency.
As for the law itself, says Sánchez, “It should have some exceptions. In certain cases the woman’s welfare has to be society’s focus, too.”
That’s a measuring stick the civilized world uses, anyway – which is why the U.N. now denounces the Salvadoran law in the wake of last year’s appalling “Beatriz” episode.
Beatriz (not her real name) became pregnant with a fetus that had no brain, and doctors said carrying that fetus was killing her thanks to her own severe medical conditions. Still, Salvadoran officials refused Beatriz a therapeutic abortion. After outcry from international human rights groups, they finally approved the fetus’ removal by C-section. It just saved Beatriz’s life.
Little wonder there’s a growing protest movement in El Salvador this year urging the government to free 17 women currently imprisoned for abortion.
“We want to say to the country and to the world, [this] is a form of violence against women,” says Sara García Gross, who heads the Citizen Group for Decriminalizing Abortion.
But this isn’t just a Salvadoran issue. Four other Latin American countries ban abortion outright – Honduras, Nicaragua, Chile and the Dominican Republic – more than any region in the world. Latin American abortion laws generally remain harsh.
That might seem odd since so many liberal governments have taken power there this century. But to win elections, left-leaning leaders –most notoriously Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega – still have to share the ball with conservative players like the Roman Catholic Church. And those players have made birth control their game of choice.
Still, El Salvador’s ruling FMLN – a party founded by former Marxist guerrillas – is considering pardons for the 17 women.
“It’s a sign things are changing,” says García.
And not a moment too soon. One of those 17 women is serving a 40-year sentence.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.