Criminalizing Miscarriages: Latin America’s Zero Tolerance Policy on Abortion By Michele Stopera Freyhauf


Imagine suffering a miscarriage.  All of us have or know someone who has suffered one; I had two.  For me it was a terrible time and I still remember the day of loss and the expected due date.  We all cope differently with this loss, but it is just that – a physical and/or emotional loss.  Statistically 15-25% of women in childbearing years will suffer a miscarriage anywhere from 5 to 20 weeks gestation.  In the United States, when we suffer a miscarriage we go to the hospital.  Often times the visit results in a dilation and curettage (or D&C) to stop bleeding and possible infection.  For me this was also done after the doctors removed the baby girl that was dead inside of my womb.

If this would have occurred in certain Latin American countries, especially in El Salvador, Chile, Colombia, Malta, Nicaragua, and even Mexico, the emergency room doctor would notify the authorities of my miscarriage and I would be arrested and jailed anywhere from 3-50 years for having an “abortion.”  El Salvador even has a prosecutor’s office responsible for crimes against minors and women whose responsibilities are capturing, trying, and incarcerating women who have abortions and miscarriages.  In this office, there are police, investigators, medical spies, and forensic vagina inspectors.  Medical providers have an obligation to report abortions; this is focused more on young uneducated and impoverished women.  For these women, there is no presumption of innocence; they are guilty.

Crucifixion by Eric Drooker (www.drooker.com)

Stories documenting this can be seen even today.  For example, Luisa Cabal and Lillian Sepulveda tell a story of Marina who had a miscarriage in 2008 and was sentenced to 30 years in prison in El Salvador.  While she was in jail, she was diagnosed with cancer and died a year later due to a lack of access to medical treatment.  In July 2009, MCPR, an 18-year old woman, sought help at a hospital for a miscarriage.  She was reported to the local authorities by her medical provider and arrested for abortion and aggravated homicide in October for an illegal abortion; she faced up to 30 years in prison.  Human Rights defenders and Catolicas por el Derecho a Decidir (CDD) in El Salvador fought for her release, which occurred January 15, 2010.  The Latin American Herald Tribune also reported that seven women, who suffered spontaneous abortions (miscarriages), convicted of homicide, and imprisoned with sentences up to 30 years in Guanajuato, were recently released.

The length of sentence and the number of women that are currently jailed vary based upon the country.  Though controversy certainly exists with voluntary abortions, the measures these women go through for a clandestine abortion, which often jeopardize their life or reproductive health, I am focusing on the issue that surrounds spontaneous abortions or miscarriages. The policies for abortion certainly impact the criminalizing of miscarriage and to demonstrate the impact I will focus on the country of El Salvador, whose maternal death rates are double the rest of Latin America.

The series of events and parties involved with the draconian law of zero tolerance and criminalizing abortion has an interesting history with two main players.  Prior to the reforming the penal code that emerged through peace accords in 1997, abortion was permitted in three cases: 1) when the mother’s life is in danger, 2) a “eugenic” abortion (baby has severe birth defects), or 3) “ethical” abortion (baby is the result of rape or incest) to ban abortions in all circumstances.  It was Pope John Paul II 1995 appointment of Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, a conservative, outspoken, and supporter of Opus Dei, to the Archdiocese of San Salvador who vocalized, and successfully insisted, that the Church should be involved in the country’s anti-abortion movement; including the creation and implementation of law.  The Catholic Church’s interpreted stance on abortion is now a constitutional amendment. According to Gloria Morán’s article, Canon Law, specifically Canon 1323, states “that abortion is not a basis for excommunication nor is it a sin when the women has health problems (therapeutic), if she is a minor, or has some other mental deficiency, etc.”

Hence the Church does not have a zero-tolerance policy; only those who have made their own interpretation would enforce such a draconian stance. Julia Regina de Cardenal, who runs Fundación Sí a la Vida  (Yes to Life Foundation) in El Salvador, is one such person.  She is not only at the forefront of the law change that not only made any abortion a criminal act, but was successful in creating a constitutional amendment stating that the government had a duty to protect life from the time of conception.  In fact, any person performing an abortion or speaking to a woman who had an abortion is considered a criminal act.  It was de Cardenal’s belief that abortion, especially when the mother’s life is in danger, is antiquated and outdated due to advancements made in medical technology.  The mandate to defend life is so strong in El Salvador that women who suffers an ectopic pregnancy stays hospitalized until the fetus dies or the fallopian tube ruptures; nothing can be done prior to that.

As recent as September 2, 2011, de Cardenal defends the criminalization of any abortion from the moment of conception because women’s movements that support decriminalization are motivated by profit and take advantage of these women; it would be like decriminalizing murder. As pointed out in the article “El Salvador: Feminist organizations join together to demand decriminalization of abortion,” it is important to note that there is no medical confidentiality and anyone suspected of abortion, spontaneous or intentional, there is no investigation, no presumption of innocence, only immediate sentencing and conviction.

Unfortunately, de Cardenal is such an outspoken proponent, the chance of changing these laws seem remote.  While another article can be authored to discuss the issue of the estimated four  million abortions committed annually in Latin America, taking a draconian approach and criminalizing abortion to the point that a woman is jailed for a miscarriage over something she has no control over needs rethought.  To imagine that I could be jailed for my body involuntarily miscarrying a baby that I later found had non-survivable birth defects is upsetting and incomprehensible.  How can we help those women victimized by such a staunch and intolerable stance?



Categories: Violence Against Women, Women and Community, Women's Suffering

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13 replies

  1. Michele, first thank you for sharing your personal experience of miscarriage. I am deeply sorry to hear that you suffered such tragedy. Also, embarrassingly, I was unaware of this violence being perpetrated against women in Latin America. It is absolutely disturbing. I am so grateful that you posted this and anticipate that your article will encourage many to actively take a stand and work towards changing this outrageous law.

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  2. Michele,
    I was aware of the harsh restrictions around abortion in some Latin America countries (all but Cuba?), but not the collapse of abortion with miscarriage. I’m wondering at what level, if any, Amnesty International is involved? I know they have historically stepped away from abortion, but miscarriages?

    After reading your post I took to google to read additional information on Latin America. I never made it. I was shocked by the number of articles on moving laws along in the UNITED STATES that would criminalized miscarriages, (http://rt.com/usa/news/usa-georgia-criminalize-abortion/ ). These laws are focused (or so they say) on women addicted to drugs during pregnancy, but not all cases have involved addicted women (and this is not an indictment against addicted mothers).

    The ultimate goal is to reverse Roe v Wade through backdoor rhetoric around all issues that involve the termination of a pregnancy. To what level the Catholic Church is involved in the U.S. with regard to miscarriages would be interesting to know (a great paper, no?). Los Angeles’ new archbishop, Jose Gomes in an ordained priest of Opus Dei. It is feared he will bring sweeping conservative changes to the LA Diocese (http://articles.latimes.com/2010/apr/06/opinion/la-oe-rutten7-2010apr07). The huge problem with Opus Dei of course is their secrecy.

    We live in very frightening times as women. It appears most of the U.S. legislation is occurring in the south, but the web of misogyny appears to be spreading. Exactly what should our behavior be in order to combate laws against our bodies? Suggestions?

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  3. From the first time I heard it, on the occasion of the first of my five failed pregnancies (three of which were twins), I hated the term “spontaneous abortion”–the clinical words grated on my already raw wounded heart. That any community could criminalize that which is already such a personal loss is heartbreaking, not to mention nonsensical. But patriarchal societies are prone to such irrationality.

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  4. Like Cynthie, I couldn’t help but think of the situation in the U.S., a place where people take pride in women’s rights. It seems that for every good thing that happens to us (free birth control) even more terrible things happen (the resurgence of abortion laws now in several states). Also like Cynthie, I had never heard such a strong discursive collapse of abortion and miscarriage. So much of western feminism us based on a rhetoric of choice, and that is where the abortion discussion has always fallen -whether or not women should have the right to choose an abortion. And this logic of choice is what made me gasp when I read about criminalized miscarriages – something out of our control. But our bodies are exactly that – ours – and society continues to try to control and discipline them. I find it so interesting to learn that the United States ultra conservative groups are trying to criminalize miscarriages on the basis of drug addiction during pregnancy because it welcomes in an element of choice, but in reality this logic is no better than that of the criminalization in these areas of Latin America.

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  5. Cynthie,

    You are correct that Cuba is an exception. There are various human rights organizations involved, but to be honest they have been involved since the peace accords after the Civil War and I do not believe that the problems have not gotten better.

    As I was researching this article I found one state that had passed a zero-tolerance law that criminalized miscarriage and it was vetoed by the Governor (thankfully). What I was not able to address in the article is the measures these women go through to abort a baby. From coat-hangers to knitting needles, self-inflicting trauma, inserting air-tubes (catheters), inserting caustic substances such as bleach vaginally. I even read where a woman tried to use battery acid. I also think it is important to note that this is not a problem unique in Latin America. It exists worldwide.

    I think what this shows is the effects of a zero-tolerance policy on a country. It leads to creative and dangerous means of self-induced abortion. I find de Cardenal to be problematic in her stance. From stating that we have medical technology that prohibits women from dying in childbirth or prohibits any risk to the mother is outrageous. If you research her, you will find that she is very confrontational and outspoken on this subject. She staunchly defends her position.

    Imposing sterilization or criminalizing miscarriage because of drugs in a chilling thought. The stance of the church, from my understanding is no abortion, BUT my understanding is that the three exceptions most countries cites is also the same exceptions here. With this and any skewed, literalistic interpretation of what they believe Church teaching is and to involve the Church politically or in popular law is dangerous; and in America isn’t there supposed to be a Constitutional Amendment that demands the separation of Church and State.

    You will have to let me know if you research that paper. In the meantime, we need to continue to fight and search for a way to combat this action. I think by education and getting the information out is the first step; this forum is a great first step.

    Michele

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  6. Kathleen,

    I hate the term “spontaneous abortion” as well. I agree that it strikes at a wounded heart. I am sorry for your loss, it is truly something that is quite difficult. I am glad that you took the time the read this blog and comment.

    Michele

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  7. Gina,

    I am glad to bring awareness to this subject. I became interested in Latin America, specifically El Salvador, when I took a class at John Carroll that coincided with the anniversary of the death of the Jesuits. It was an eye-opening experience and my final project explore feminism in El Salvador. It is topic that will disturb your being, especially when the wrong is committed as a horribly wrong interpretation of the Church’s teaching or stance. For example, machismo was influenced by the Church to define what the ideal Catholic woman should be; Mary. When women go outside the norm or construct that they are told to fit within, they are seen as “less than” human, which gives the green light for gang rape and torture with a guilt-free conscience. This was extremely prevalent during the civil war period.

    So many women are in need of our voice and I hope we can continue to raise awareness to these issues.

    Michele

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  8. Amy,

    I am not sure of a person who operates in absolutes fully considers the ramification of the actions. Of those proposing laws, it would be interesting to see how many were men and what organized religion or belief system the belong to.

    Imposing absolute prohibits in abortion causes a question in any loss, voluntary or not. The problem is there is a presumption of guilt. The other issue is, when they are jailed, they do not have access to healthcare. If they do not receive care before they are jailed, they can bleed out or obtain a horrible infection.

    I wonder what would happen if we imposed laws that exercised mandates and control over a man’s body or areas of reproduction. To mandate sterilization in the light of drug abuse or not paying child support; to mandate circumcision because the Bible says to, etc.

    I think the theme in all of this is a misappropriation of religious teaching that interprets an extreme stance that injures or pronounces judgment on someone in the name of Christ. And who is making that interpretation?

    Michele

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  9. I would say that to suggest miscarriage as criminal behavior only serves to show medical ignorance at its best. However, I believe that the “ignorance” is purposeful. Perhaps men are drawing on the term “spontaneous abortion” (a term I detest as well as others apparently do) that seems to represent (in their eyes, perhaps) a will to actually miscarry. While I can’t speak for others, I lost many, many pregnancies before my successful attempts to have two wonderful children. I say with complete faith that I never willfully tried to terminate any of my pregnancies. Shocking, shocking, shocking… I’m almost literally without words, and as a writer myself, simply shows how shocked I am.

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  10. Michele,
    Let me start by saying that you aré completely desinformed. I don’t know were you get your facts. It is unfortunate that someone is disinforming you and that you aré propagating a lie. I am latin american from Ecuador and residing in Chile. Last year I had a miscarriage here in Chile and there was no police, no legal action against me or anything of the sort. I have many friends that went through a miscarriage and again no legal action action against them whatsover. Miscarriages were taken for what they are an unfortunate event, but a natural event of life. The same goes for Ecuador. I believe this practice of misinforming people with outrageous lies about miscarriages and how they are handled in latin america is pure tactics and a strategy of the abortion movement or “pro choice” organizations to infiltrate their ideas in our countries. Latin american countries are very religious and conservative and believe in the sanctity of a human life. There have been many international organizations trying to pass laws favoring abortion in our countries, México, Brasil, Uruguay, now Argentina. All these initiatives have failed, you see we know better! We believe in defending the most vulnerable and precious gifts we have, our children!
    Do not be gullible to believe the lies some organizations are trying to feed you. Michelle you should be moré responsible with the information you post.

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  11. Michele,
    Let me start by saying that you aré completely desinformed. I don’t know were you get your facts. It is unfortunate that someone is disinforming you and that you aré propagating a lie. I am latin american from Ecuador and residing in Chile. Last year I had a miscarriage here in Chile and there was no police, no legal action against me or anything of the sort. I have many friends that went through a miscarriage and again no legal action action against them whatsover. Miscarriages were taken for what they are an unfortunate event, but a natural event of life. The same goes for Ecuador. I believe this practice of misinforming people with outrageous lies about miscarriages and how they are handled in latin america is pure tactics and a strategy of the abortion movement or “pro choice” organizations to infiltrate their ideas in our countries. Latin american countries are very religious and conservative and believe in the sanctity of a human life. There have been many international organizations trying to pass laws favoring abortion in our countries, México, Brasil, Uruguay, now Argentina. All these initiatives have failed, you see we know better! We believe in defending the most vulnerable and precious gifts we have, our children!
    Do not be gullible to believe the lies some organizations are trying to feed you. Michelle you should be moré responsible with the information you post.
    I hope you can be brave, fair and objective and post my comment so that people can know a diferent opinión and know the other side of the story.

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  12. You need to publish this information much more widely. The fundamentalists who argue that doing a procedure is murder should then do the next logical thing and that is to invoke the “El Salvador” doctrine, since that is where it is headed. If the fundamentalists think that the more than one million who had an abortion last year are “murderers,” we have a lot of capital punishment ahead of us! And for everyone with the fetus-gore pictures, it is time to tell the stories of what happened to women in this country when abortions were neither safe nor legal. Many of them died because those who thought their religious “birthright” of the unborn trumps that of those who are born and living. Do they ever think about these implications? I doubt it.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/09/magazine/09abortion.html?pagewanted=all when will santorum et al. start the “vagina inspectors” start their work?

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