El Salvador’s “Abortion Lawyer”
The congested road to El Salvador’s Ilopango Women’s Prison is lined with rundown snack shops and pink dogwood trees. Dennis Muñoz describes the concrete complex, which operates at 900 percent capacity, as “living hell.”
Few know the prison better than the 37-year-old lawyer. For the past eight years, he’s made countless visits to his clients there. In addition to being young and poor, the women all have one thing in common: they suffered miscarriages or complications at childbirth. In turn, they were sentenced up to 40 years in prison for aggravated homicide.
“There is a war against women in this country,” Muñoz explains, trudging from courthouse to courthouse in San Salvador’s gridlocked traffic. “And if you’re poor and uneducated like a majority of the women, you might be next.”
El Salvador has one of the most draconian abortion laws in the world. With staunch support from the country’s Catholic Church and a powerful pro-life lobby, abortion became illegal in 1998 in all cases including rape, incest, and those in which a mother’s life is at risk. Because those who assist in an abortion face six to twelve years in prison, the criminalization has fueled a witch hunt in the country’s hospitals and courts, with many women who suffer miscarriages or obstetric complications held suspect for aborting their pregnancies.
“We have no rights,” said 32-year-old Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, who has been in prison for nine years after she lost consciousness in the bathroom of her workplace and delivered her baby stillbirth at nearly nine months. Police believed she had aborted her baby. Before Muñoz offered his services pro-bono, she said she was forced to use a lawyer from the prosecution. She was ultimately sentenced to 30 years.
Vásquez is one of 17 women, known as ” Las 17,” who between 1999 and 2011 were sentenced following reported miscarriages, most on charges of aggravated homicide because their fetuses were ruled as viable. (Abortion charges carry a sentence of two to eight years). According to The Salvadoran Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, which has petitioned for their pardons, a total of 25 are currently in jail, sentenced without due process or sufficient evidence. Per their verdicts, authorities believe that all these women aborted their pregnancies. Muñoz says these women were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, subject to the whims of an unreasonably suspicious medical and judicial system.
“We refuse to accept this fate,” Vásquez said.
Muñoz never thought he would spend his career fighting for women like Vásquez. He was raised in a conservative lower class family, for whom human rights was the stuff of “fancy universities,” rarely discussed. When he was 19, his partner gave birth to his only child and Muñoz soon put himself through law school, hoping to give his daughter a better life.
Then “lightning struck” in 2008 when he stumbled across the file of an 18-year-old woman named Cristina Quintanilla. In 2004, she suffered a miscarriage at seven months. When she regained consciousness, she found herself handcuffed to a hospital bed; she was later sentenced to 30 years in prison. No one would represent her in El Salvador, much less for free.
“I’m not a religious man, but I believe it was my destiny to find Cristina’s file,” Muñoz said. “I’m addicted to fighting for these women. I’m not afraid to say I’m a feminist.”
Everyone told Muñoz he was crazy, that he was taking on a lost cause. But in 2009, Muñoz successfully argued that a medical examiner never established the cause of the baby’s death. The Supreme Court reduced Cristina’s sentence to four years. She had already served most of it and was soon released. It was the largest reduction in El Salvador’s legal history, he said.
“As soon as I received the news I went to the prison and we cried in each other’s arms,” he recalled, as tears filled his eyes.
Since that victory, local media have lambasted Muñoz as the “abortion lawyer.” He was kicked out of his Catholic community service group. He has lost friends. His own family, including his “polar opposite” twin brother, refused to talk to him for a period of time.
“He has huge guts to go against the system, especially as a man,” said his colleague Katia Recinos, a lawyer at The Salvadoran Citizens’ Group. “It’s rare for men here to join the cause. This is a machismo country where women’s rights don’t get much attention.”
Muñoz’s battle in El Salvador takes place against a backdrop of some of the worst violence in the world. The deadliest country per capita that is not at war, El Salvador is still stumbling from the aftermath of a violent 12-year civil war in which up to 75,000 were killed. A deficit of economic opportunities has led many youth to either emigrate or join the country’s pernicious and powerful network of gangs. Some 80 percent of Salvadorians say they want to leave the country.
This vicious cocktail of poverty and hopelessness affects women disproportionately. El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide in the world and some of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and domestic violence in Latin America. For 32 percent of Salvadorians who live below the poverty line, justice remains elusive.
Last month, right-wing parliamentarian Ricardo Andrés Velásquez Parker introduced a bill that could increase the maximum penalty of abortion from eight to 50 years – the same as aggravated homicide.
“Look, it’s simple, we are a pro-life country with a constitution that states life begins at conception,” Parker explained at a political rally, where many called “The 17” baby-killers.
“I’m not against the rights of a woman,” he said. “But they end where her baby’s begins.”
This widely-held belief has bred a culture where an informal collective of pharmacists and doctors work clandestinely, helping the majority of women who cannot afford to travel abroad or pay a private doctor for the procedure.
“We’re forced to operate like criminals because that’s what we are according to the church and government,” said a 35-year-old pharmacist who said she has advised more than 300 women in the last 12 years in aborting pregnancies in their first trimesters using Misoprostol, a drug traditionally prescribed to treat stomach ulcers. “We’re all facing a wall.”
For the past several months, Muñoz has been gearing up for the trial of 22-year-old Santos Elizabeth Herrera Gamez, who was arrested last year after she delivered her baby stillbirth. Her trial was postponed twice. Last week they received rare good news from the court: she would be released due to a lack of evidence.
“One day I hope these women won’t have to deal with this… one day this country won’t be in the dark ages,” said Muñoz, wiping beads of sweat from his thick eyebrows. Just two days before, he received yet another call from the family of a 23-year-old woman whom he will represent in a few months. “Until then, they can all call me names…until then, I will just nod proudly.”
Lauren Bohn (@LaurenBohn) is The GroundTruth Project’s Middle East correspondent. Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation and is part of a GroundTruth series called Generation T.B.D.