April 19, 2017 – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)—a principal human rights body for the Americas—announced it will hear the case of Manuela, a Salvadoran woman wrongfully imprisoned after having an obstetric emergency who later died from untreated Hodgkins lymphoma in prison.
In its report, the IACHR states that it is admitting Manuela’s case after determining that the government of El Salvador failed to provide access to justice for Manuela and her family in the country, citing failure to provide Manuela with adequate defense counsel.
The Center for Reproductive Rights and Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto filed a petition to the IACHR on behalf of Manuela’s family in March 2012 which demonstrated the numerous human rights violations Manuela endured because of El Salvador’s total abortion ban. IACHR is now awaiting additional written arguments from both parties assessing Manuela’s case on various human rights grounds, including the rights to life, personal integrity, personal liberty, due process, non-discrimination and dignity.
Said Catalina Martínez Coral, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center:
“Pregnant women should never fear for their life or freedom when seeking medical attention.
“El Salvador’s hostility towards abortion led to Manuela’s wrongful imprisonment and it ultimately cost her life.
“The Inter-American Commission must now put pressure on the Salvadoran government to end the criminalization of women and provide reparations to Manuela’s family.”
For nearly two decades, El Salvador has criminalized abortion in all circumstances—even when necessary to save a woman’s life—imposing harsh criminal penalties on both women and physicians. The ban has resulted in the imprisonment of countless women who have suffered pregnancy-related complications and miscarriages, who are then charged for having an abortion and wrongfully convicted of homicide.
Once the Inter-American Commission reviews the arguments, it will assess Manuela’s case using human rights mechanisms including the American Convention on Human Rights, the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Eliminate Torture, and the Inter-American Convention for the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (Convention of Belém do Pará).
In 2008, Manuela, a 33-year-old Salvadoran woman with two young children, suffered a complication giving birth during her third trimester. From the moment she arrived at the hospital, doctors treated her as if she had attempted an abortion and immediately called the police. She was shackled to her hospital bed and accused of murder. She was later convicted to 30 years in prison on charges of aggravated homicide without ever having had a chance to meet with her lawyer, and without having an opportunity to speak in her own defense.
After several months in prison, Manuela was diagnosed with advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a disease that could have been the cause of her miscarriage and that could have been treated earlier with proper medical attention in prison. When she finally received chemotherapy it was too little, too late. Manuela died in jail in 2010.
“The state failed Manuela, her children and her family,” said Morena Herrera, Executive Director of Agrupación Ciudadana. “She is one of Las 17 and she should still be with us today, but untreated cancer prevented her from continuing to fight for freedom. Now we await justice and hope the Salvadoran government recognizes the human rights violations Manuela suffered for the sake of her dignity and her children.”
The Center for Reproductive Rights has worked to expose the consequences of El Salvador’s blanket abortion ban on the lives of women. The Center, together with the Agrupación Ciudadana, filed a case in December 2015 before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of nine women who had serious pregnancy complications and are now in prison due to the severe enforcement of El Salvador’s absolute abortion ban.
In December 2014, a coalition of NGOs led by Agrupación Ciudadana and the Center for Reproductive Rights launched the “Las17” online campaign calling for the release of “Guadalupe” and 16 other Salvadoran women who all suffered obstetric emergencies, were accused of having illegal abortions and were later convicted of homicide. “Mirna,” one of “Las 17,” was released in December 2014 after serving her prison sentence before her pardon could be finalized. In February 2015, Guadalupe was successfully released and pardoned, after serving seven years in prison. In May 2016, Maria Teresa was released after a judge ruled that there were violations of due process in her case. And in February 2016 Sonia Tábora obtained her permanent freedom. The remaining women are each currently serving 30-40 year sentences for crimes they never committed.
The Center and the Agrupación Ciudadana co-authored the report Marginalized, Persecuted and Imprisoned: The Effects of El Salvador’s Total Criminalization of Abortion that documents the human rights consequences of the abortion ban. The report analyzes how El Salvador’s health, judicial, and prison systems fail to guarantee women’s human rights.