Jailed for miscarriage, women realize the cost of criminalizing abortion

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Maria Teresa Rivera didn't know she was pregnant until the November morning four years ago when she suffered a miscarriage. She was rushed to the hospital after her mother-in-law found her collapsed and bleeding on the floor. But after receiving medication, Rivera was handcuffed and detained by the police when a health worker accused her of having had an abortion.

Rivera, 32, is currently serving a 40-year prison sentence after being found guilty of aggravated homicide in a 2012 ruling that has been highly contested by women's rights organizations around the world. She is one of at least 19 women behind bars for pregnancy-related charges in El Salvador, where abortion is not only illegal, but can be considered a form of murder punishable by incarceration. Rivera's story is detailed in a report published Monday by the human rights organization Amnesty International that aims to show how El Salvador's strict anti-abortion law can wreak havoc on the lives of children whose mothers have been imprisoned.

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While previous legislation in Central America's most densely populated nation allowed for women to seek abortions in cases of emergency including rape or incest, a law passed in 1998 cracked down on reproductive rights, criminalizing abortion no matter the circumstance. Because of the law's framework, women like Rivera who suffer miscarriages or other childbirth-related complications have also faced charges, according to the report.

"I hardly ever get visitors because of my mother-in-law's economic situation," Rivera, a single mother to a 10-year-old, said in interviews with Amnesty International. "I want to be with them and work to pay for the things my family needs," she said. Prior to her incarceration, the former seamstress would combine her salary—an hourly wage of less than $1—with her mother-in-law's to cover their basic expenses. Now, Rivera's family—like those of two other incarcerated women interviewed for Amnesty's report—have little means of supporting themselves.

"Each time authorities in El Salvador unfairly lock up a woman for having a miscarriage or suffering pregnancy related complications, they are also condemning her children to a life of poverty and trauma," Astrid Valencia, an Amnesty International researcher based in South America, said in a statement calling for El Salvador to repeal its ban on abortion.

The law also puts health care providers at risk of serving prison time for performing abortions, making unsafe procedures common—an estimated 11 percent performed in El Salvador resulted in death, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization. Suicide among pregnant teens is common, too: In El Salvador, which has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Latin America, suicide accounts for more than half the deaths of pregnant women and girls under the age of 20, according to estimates by Amnesty International.

El Salvador isn't the only country where women face damaging repercussions for terminating a pregnancy. One in four women around the world lives in a place where abortion is only allowed under life-threatening circumstances or prohibited altogether, according to the reproductive health non-profit Guttmacher Institute. Globally, an estimated 47,000 women die every year from complications due to unsafe abortions—accounting for about 13 percent of all maternal deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

When El Salvador pardoned a woman in January who had been imprisoned after suffering a miscarriage, the United Nations Human Rights Council applauded the move and urged the country to repeal its restrictive abortion law and pardon all women incarcerated on similar charges. Rivera, who is four years into her 40-year sentence, told Amnesty International that she still dreams of the day when she is released. She aspires to some day save up enough money to buy a house and start a new life with her son.

Check out the effect of stronger abortion laws in Texas:

With Texas' New Anti-Abortion Law, Abortion Rates Drop Dramatically

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