Content warning: This post discusses pregnancy loss.
Maria Teresa Rivera was wrongfully prosecuted under El Salvador’s strict anti-abortion laws after losing her child during complications at birth. She spent four years in a San Salvador prison before her conviction was absolved this year. El Salvador’s law makes it illegal to have an abortion under any circumstances. The following blog has been translated from interviews.
My name is Maria Teresa Rivera. I am 33 years old and the mother of an 11-year-old boy. I lost my second child in a sudden premature birth at home and was accused of killing my newborn baby, or aggravated homicide. A homicide that I didn’t commit. But no one believed me and I was condemned to 40 years in prison; the longest sentence ever handed down for an abortion case in my country. But thanks to God, I’m free.
I will never forget the morning that changed my life. I felt very uncomfortable; I had stomach pains and suddenly needed to go to the toilet. When I was in the toilet I just felt something come out. When I stood up I was covered in blood that wouldn’t stop. I felt dizzy. I made it back to my bedroom but I fell unconscious and after that I don’t remember anything else – only waking up in a hospital bed. I later learnt my mother in law found me covered in blood and rushed me there.
Immediately doctors asked where my baby was and I asked what baby? I had no idea I was pregnant. My pregnancy had been asymptomatic. But doctors didn’t believe me. If I had known, I would have liked to have been a mother again, as I am to my son Oscar.
The nurses immediately called the police and accused me of having an abortion. They asked me lots of questions. How did I cut the umbilical cord? What did I use to cut it? At about 5pm that afternoon the police arrived and handcuffed me to the hospital bed. I just kept telling them I hadn’t done anything. But they handcuffed me and told me I had killed my baby.
The worst thing was I live in a rural village outside San Salvador. Our toilet is a pit latrine – the place I had rushed thinking I needed to use the bathroom. They said I threw my baby in there. That was their evidence.
Not at any moment did they listen to me. They never examined me. I asked repeatedly for a lawyer – but one never turned up. I felt completely powerless. Voiceless.
I was taken to prison where they treated me really badly. The policemen threw food in my face. In hospital I was given some medicine because I was very weak from such severe haemorrhages. But they told me I deserved to die.
At my first hearing I told the judge you need to examine my body. But still they did nothing. Finally the judge sentenced me to forty years in prison. Forty years was extremely difficult for me. I started to think about how old my son Oscar would be when I was released. I realised he would be 47 years old. I thought, 'How is he going to manage his studies without me?' I was both mother and father to him because his father never supported me. That really killed me.
In that moment I asked God, 'Why did you give me this life? Why was I born? If my life has been a failure - when is this going to stop?'
But I kept fighting.
There was this woman in prison who used to tell me you have a son and you need to fight for him. And this woman gave me faith to wake up in the morning. I began to support the other women like me in prison who had lost their babies and are now accused or sentenced for an abortion, for homicide. In prison, the stigma around our cases is extreme. Other inmates beat you. So often other women like me would ask, “How can you be so brave to tell us why you are here?” And I told them that I feel good when I let it out. By talking. I felt good because I hadn't done anything wrong. There were 17 of us, all wrongfully accused, now behind bars. By talking, we supported each other.