SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Teodora del Carmen Vásquez was nine months pregnant and working at a school cafeteria when she felt extreme pain in her back, like the crack of a hammer. She called 911 seven times before fainting in a bathroom in a pool of blood.
The nightmare that followed is common in El Salvador, a heavily Catholic country where abortion is banned under all circumstances and even women who suffer miscarriages and stillbirths are sometimes accused of killing their babies and sentenced to years or even decades in prison.
When Vásquez regained consciousness, she had lost her nearly full-term fetus. Instead of an ambulance, officers drove her in the bed of a pickup through heavy rain to a police station. There she was arrested on suspicion of violating El Salvador’s abortion law, one of the world's strictest. Fearing she could die, authorities eventually rushed her to a hospital, where she was chained by her left foot to a gurney. She was prosecuted, convicted and given 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide.
“This is the reality that we have lived, and I am not alone,” said Vásquez, who ended up serving more than 10 years for what she has always said was a stillbirth. “Any woman who arrives to jail accused of having an abortion is seen as the most evil, heartless being.”
“From the moment we get pregnant, we become incubators,” said Vásquez, who was freed in 2018 after her sentence was commuted. “We lose our rights because the only possibility that we have of a life is taking care of the product inside us. It’s violence against us.”
Abortion rights activists say the law has led to widespread human rights violations against Salvadoran women and should serve as a cautionary tale for the United States, where more than 20 states are expected to ban abortion if the Supreme Court overturns the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling in the coming weeks.
Some states may retain exceptions for cases such as rape or incest, but others are likely to have none save for a threat to a pregnant woman's life. That would mean some rape victims may be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term and obstetric emergencies could be mistaken for intentional abortions, according to Catalina Martínez Coral, Latin America and Caribbean director for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.
“These states are going to live similar situations that women are living in El Salvador,” Martínez Coral said.
Some anti-abortion leaders in the U.S. say they oppose prosecuting women who have abortions, but others think differently. Louisiana legislators unsuccessfully pushed a bill this year that would have allowed such prosecutions, for example, and Tom Ascol, a top contender to become the Southern Baptist Convention’s next president, favors classifying the procedure as homicide.
Women used to be able to seek abortions in cases of risk to their life, severe fetal malformations incompatible with life, or rape in El Salvador, a country of 6.5 million people nestled between Guatemala and Honduras along Central America's Pacific Coast.
But that ended in the late 1990s with a law championed by anti-abortion activists, conservative lawmakers and the Catholic Church, followed by a constitutional amendment defining life as starting at conception.
Today it is one of four countries in the Western Hemisphere with total bans — but it stands out for its aggressive prosecutions. While abortion carries a two- to eight-year prison sentence, dozens of women have, like Vásquez, been convicted of aggravated homicide, punishable by 30 years behind bars.
Overall, El Salvador has prosecuted at least 181 women who experienced obstetric emergencies in the past two decades, according to the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, which has been working to win freedom for such women since 2009. At least 65 imprisoned women have been released with the help of the organization and its allies.