Jailed for 40 years... because she had a miscarriage.

Here’s something we know about abortion but that we sometimes struggle to articulate.

Making access to abortion safe and legal, actually makes it less common. That is because it is in countries where abortion is outlawed – and contraception is hard to come by – that the abortion rates are highest. It is also in these countries where those abortions are most likely to put the mother’s life at risk.

El Salvador is one of those countries. But in addition to risking their lives, women who have abortions or are considered by authorities to have attempted to have an abortion, also risk jail time.

El Salvador’s abortion laws have cost many women their lives


Women’s rights advocates say 17 women were unjustly imprisoned after experiencing miscarriage, stillbirth, and other obstetric complications, because the Salvadoran constitution declares that life begins at conception.

According to Amnesty International, one of those 17 woman, Maria Teresa Rivera, didn’t know she was pregnant and had a miscarriage. Her mother-in-law found her bleeding on the bathroom floor and rushed her to the hospital. A hospital staff member reported Rivera to the police and since all fertilized eggs are protected people under El Salvadorian law, the authorities conducted an investigation.

Rivera was tried and convicted of aggravated homicide. She is serving 40 years in prison.

Forty years in prison for something she had no control over.

In El Salvador, abortion is illegal under all circumstances, even when the pregnant woman isn’t a woman at all but a girl, or when she’s a rape or incest victim, or when her life or health is at risk.

Amnesty International estimates that more than 1 out of every 10 women in that country who underwent illegal abortions died. Common methods of terminating a pregnancy, Amnesty says, include “ingesting rat poison or other pesticides, and thrusting knitting needles, pieces of wood and other sharp objects into the cervix, and the use of the ulcer treatment drug misoprostol, which has become widely used to induce abortions.”


The country also has the highest teen pregnancy rate in Latin America, and the combination of illegal abortion and stigma around teen pregnancy and sexual violence means pregnant teenage girls, many of them rape victims, commit suicide in large numbers. More than a third of maternal deaths are pregnant teenagers who kill themselves.

Teenage suicide statistics are high in a country that rejects abortion

Other girls go on to give birth. One doctor told Amnesty about caring for a 9-year-old rape survivor who didn’t understand what being pregnant meant and was nonetheless forced to carry to term.

“She asked us for colouring pencils. Crayons,” he told the human rights organization. “And it broke all of our hearts because she started to draw us all, she drew and she stuck it on the wall. And we said: ‘She’s still just a girl, just a little girl.'”

These terrifying circumstances don’t change overnight.

But with that image of a woman in prison for forty years.

And with that picture of a girl colouring in, awaiting motherhood at the tender age of nine, something is certain: Their circumstances must be changed.

Women everywhere should be agitating for that change.

If you want to read more about these women’s plight, head over to Amnesty International.