A woman is facing 20 years in jail charged with attempted murder after she gave birth to her rapist's baby, in a toilet, in a case that shines a spotlight on the cruelty of abortion laws in El Salvador.
Twenty-year-old Imelda Cortez, from a poor family in San Miguel, was raped by her 70-year-old stepfather, who had been abusive since she was 12 years old, and was unaware she had been pregnant, the Guardian reported. She has been in custody since giving birth to the healthy baby girl in April 2017, with the criminal trial against her beginning today and a ruling expected within a week.
Last year, a then-teenage Cortez was rushed to hospital after her mother found her bleeding heavily and in severe pain. Her baby daughter was found alive and healthy in the toilet. However, emergency room doctors suspected Cortez had attempted to abort the baby and called the police, after which she was charged with attempted murder, denied bail and sent to prison after spending a week in hospital, reported the Guardian.
Cortez's stepfather visited her in hospital and threatened to kill her, her siblings and mother if she reported the abuse, according to a fellow patient who overheard his outburst and told a nurse, who called the police.
One of Cortez’s defence lawyers described the case as 'the most extreme, scandalous injustice against a woman' she had seen.
Bertha María Deleón, one of Cortez’s defence lawyers, described the case as "the most extreme, scandalous injustice against a woman" she had seen. "The state has repeatedly violated Imelda’s rights as a victim; she’s deeply affected but denied psychological attention." In a psychological evaluation of Cortez's cognitive and emotional health, evidence was found of effects consistent with abuse and trauma. Yet during her 18-month detention she has received no psychological help.
Prosecutors initially accused Cortez of lying about the abuse to justify her crime, but a DNA test confirmed her stepfather's paternity. He is yet to be charged of any crime.
Abortion law in El Salvador
The case highlights the rigidity of El Salvador's abortion laws. Abortion has been illegal under all circumstances in the Central American country since 1998, even in cases of rape or when a pregnancy poses a risk to a woman's life. It also recognises the right to life from the moment of conception, "further criminalising abortion by providing the legal basis for the state to prosecute abortion related crimes as homicide," says the US Center for Reproductive Rights. Women accused of undergoing the procedure can be sentenced to up to 50 years in prison.
According to the UN and charities around the world, the situation violated women's human rights and puts women and girls at risk, because so many of them "may resort to illegal and clandestine abortions".
The impact on women
Women have been aggressively persecuted in the country as a result of the total ban, with poor, single women of low socioeconomic status most likely to be affected, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Dozens of women are languishing in jail – many with 30- or 40-year sentences – accused of having abortions and charged with aggravated murder when they suffered miscarriages or stillbirths. In March this year, Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín was released from jail after serving almost half of her 30-year sentence, which she received after suffering a late-term miscarriage.
More than 40% of the country's households are impoverished – a figure that rises to 50% in rural areas – and sexual violence is rife in the country, making the lack of access to safe and legal abortion particularly devastating. The country has been described as "one of the world's most dangerous places to be a woman".
While El Salvador's abortion laws are among the world's harshest (many other Latin American countries have similarly strict rules, such as Argentina and Brazil), some are thankfully introducing more liberal measures. Chile eased total abortion ban last year, allowing terminations after rape, if the mother's life is at risk or if the foetus is not expected to survive the pregnancy. While Bolivian lawmakers voted to ease its tight restrictions last December, allowing "students, adolescents or girls" to terminate pregnancies up to eight weeks.