A Salvadoran woman has spent more than 10 years in prison after police claimed she had an abortion — but activists are hopeful that her 30-year prison sentence could be overturned in light of strong evidence that she actually suffered a stillbirth. Speaking to Al Jazeera from prison, Carmen Vasquez said that she was 24 years old and nine months pregnant with her second child when she called 911 to say that she thought she was about to give birth.
“I told them I was pregnant, and that I was going to have my baby,” she recalled. “I asked them to help me … I kept dialing, but the ambulance never came.”
After four hours, she retreated into the bathroom of the school where she was working, and fainted before she could even sit down. When she awoke, she was surrounded by blood. Someone who saw the blood called police, who, instead of helping her or taking her to a hospital, put in her handcuffs and took her straight to jail for questioning. At the time, Vasquez said, she wasn’t even aware that she had given birth — let alone that her baby was stillborn. Before she lost consciousness from blood loss, Vasquez said, she heard one of the officers saying that she looked like she was about to die.
In El Salvador, women can be charged with either abortion — a crime that carries a sentence of two to eight years in prison — or homicide, which comes with a sentence of 30 to 50 years. According to one of Vasquez’s lawyers, Katia Recinos, judges have discretion to charge women on either count as they please. The forensic investigation that led to Vasquez being convicted, she added, was improperly performed, since there was evidence that the baby had died before it was ever born.
Vasquez is one of “Las 17,” a group of women that activists say were imprisoned over miscarriages or stillbirths. According to Recinos, many women who suffer miscarriages are reported by hospital staff who fear that they could be prosecuted for not telling police about a suspected abortion. According to Alberto Brunori, representative for Central America at the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the result is that “when a woman goes to the doctor because she has aborted naturally, the presumption of guilt automatically reigns instead of the presumption of innocence.”
In her interview with Al Jazeera, Vasquez also spoke about the negative reception she would likely receive at home even if she were to be found innocent and released from prison.
Watch a Univision interview with Vasquez below.
Read the full story at Al Jazeera.