Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín was originally sentenced to 30 years for aggravated murder.
El Salvador has some of the harshest abortion laws in the world. Terminations are banned in all circumstances, with no exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother. Women who defy the law can be punished with up to eight years in prison – and if a judge decides that a woman’s abortion counts as ‘aggravated murder’, she can be given a sentence of up to 30 years. Women have been sentenced to decades in jail for having miscarriages; since 2000, at least 35 women in the predominantly Catholic country have been imprisoned after having stillbirths.
This week, a woman was freed from prison in El Salvador after spending 15 years behind bars. Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín, 34, has always maintained that she didn’t have an abortion, and instead suffered a stillbirth at the house where she worked as a maid in 2003.
After being taken to hospital, Figueroa was arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison on a charge of aggravated murder. She was released on Tuesday and reunited with her family.
Upon her release from prison near the capital of San Salvador, Figueroa said that she planned to help other women who faced prosecution for going through miscarriages or stillbirths.
“I am happy to be with my family,” she told BBC News. “I want to study law to understand what happened to me and help other women.
“I’m going to start again and make up for lost time.”
Earlier this year, another Salvadoran woman serving time in prison for abortion had her sentence commuted. Teodora Vásquez suffered a stillbirth in 2007 and was sentenced to 30 years in jail for aggravated homicide in 2008. She was released after 10 years in February, with El Salvador’s Supreme Court saying there were “powerful reasons of justice and fairness which warranted granting her the grace of commuting her sentence”.
El Salvador’s anti-abortion culture means that families and medical professionals are expected to report a woman to the police if she is suspected of having a miscarriage. Indeed, doctors have a legal responsibility to contact the authorities if they think a woman has tried to end her own pregnancy: if they do not, they are also liable to face long stretches in prison.
This means that women are often afraid to seek medical help when they experience complications with pregnancy.
“We are terrified of having medical problems during pregnancy as there is an underlying presumption of guilt,” Jeannette Urquilla, the executive director of Salvadoran women’s group ORMUSA, writes for the Los Angeles Times. “So women often suffer in silence, which causes further complications.”
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