Why Women Around the World Face Jail Time for Miscarrying

In Argentina, a woman was sentenced to eight years in prison after having a miscarriage when police accused her of self-inducing an abortion—and her case is far from unique.

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Jun 6 2016, 6:00pm

Photo by Paul J. Richards via Getty Images

Two years ago, Belén was just a normal 25-year-old from Tucumán, a conservative province in the north of Argentina. Today, however, her story reads like the stuff of dystopian fiction.

One morning in 2014, after experiencing severe abdominal pains and heavy bleeding from her vagina, she went to a state hospital. The doctors there determined she was 22 weeks pregnant and having a miscarriage, which came as a surprise to her. At the time, Belén insists, she didn't even know she had been pregnant. Despite this, medical staff accused of having attempted to self-induce an abortion. They had found a fetus in the hospital bathroom earlier that day, which they said was hers—a claim Belén has repeatedly denied.

Read more: Women Are Being Charged for Murder After Self-Inducing Abortions

According to Amnesty International, no DNA tests were ever performed to prove that the fetus found in the hospital that day was Belén's. However, after hospital staff turned her over to the police, she was charged with inducing an abortion. After Belén had been held in pre-trial detention for two years, the prosecutor changed her charge to aggravated murder—a crime that could result in up to 25 years in prison. On April 19 of this year, Belén was found guilty of murder and sentenced to eight years.

Belén's defense lawyer, Soledad Deza, is active member of Catholics for Choice, a movement gaining momentum in the increasingly liberal Argentina. She is currently fighting tooth and nail to get the sentence overturned and to have the 27-year-old released as soon as possible.

"Belén is barely starting to understand that she is the victim in all of this and not a criminal," Deza told Broadly. "Remember, she has been sentenced for aggravated murder, a crime that has its own special connotations in our patriarchal society." According to Deza, she and Belén have spoken at length, and Belén is now ready to fight for justice and to ensure that no woman in Argentina suffers the same fate as her, while also starting to understand that her case has become a major political issue and a symbol of her country's burgeoning feminist movement.

"It's not just about her case," Soledad said. "There are strong cultural tenets at play in this case: maternity as a destiny for all women, the power physicians have to 'discipline' patients, and the role the legal system plays when it comes to accessing public health services."

Belén is barely starting to understand that she is the victim in all of this and not a criminal.

Unfortunately, Belen's case is by no means an isolated phenomenon. At this very moment, in El Salvador, 17 women sit on "abortion row." Las 17, as they are known, are all serving far harsher sentences than Belén's—between 15 and 40 years for having a miscarriage or a suspected illegal abortion. El Salvador has some of the harshest abortion restrictions in the world; terminating a pregnancy is forbidden even in cases of rape or threat to the mother's life.

Maria del Carmen Garcia, one of Las 17, was the maid of a well-to-do family. One morning in 2009, her employers found her passed out in a pool of blood, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. She was rushed to the hospital, where doctors determined she'd had a miscarriage. Although her story is initially similar to Belén's, in this case it wasn't the medical practitioners who accused her of having an abortion, but rather her employers. Maria barely had time to recover or mourn the loss of her pregnancy: She was booked into jail that very same day, after the family she had been working for called the police.

According to the March of Dimes, as many as 50 percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage—most often before a woman misses a menstrual period or even knows she is pregnant. About 15 percent of recognized pregnancies will actually end in a miscarriage, 85 percent of which occur in the first trimester of pregnancy.

And according to Paula Ávila-Guillen from the Center For Reproductive Rights, the women who end up being prosecuted for miscarrying are almost always low-income. "Women who live in rural areas, who don't have access to medical services, who have no stable income, are in a poor economic situation and already vulnerable," she said.

The Center For Reproductive Rights has been working alongside Amnesty International and local organizations to lobby judges and government officials in El Salvador. They believe that the most effective way to galvanize lasting social change is to create an open dialogue around reproductive rights and abortion, as well as the ways in which overly harsh anti-abortion laws put women in danger. "We want to be able to talk about reproductive rights as human rights, abortion as just another medical procedure that is part of women's lives," said Avila-Guillen.

Read more: Lawyers Fight to Free Woman Convicted of Murder for Self-Induced Miscarriage

Reproductive rights organizations have seen some major victories in recent years—Amnesty International's recent campaign to obtain a pardon for Maria Teresa, one of Las 17, was a success; she was freed three weeks ago, after serving only five years of her 40-year sentence. However, Avila-Guillen warns, many women in Latin America remain at risk. "Ecuador and Nicaragua partners have also mentioned cases," she said. "In Guanajato, Mexico, there have been reports of cases similar to Las 17."

Of course, this issue isn't specific to South and Central America: In America, where increasingly restrictive policies that aim to control women's bodies are putting abortion effectively out of reach for countless women, self-induced miscarriages are reportedly on the rise. Since more restrictive regulations have been enforced in conservative US states, Google searches for terms such as "DIY abortion," "how to self-abort," and "how to have a miscarriage" have skyrocketed across these very same states.

Meanwhile, pregnant women across the country face persecution for accidents and miscarriages. Last year, according to NBC, Purvi Patel became "the first woman in the US to be charged, convicted, and sentenced on a feticide charge" after she went to the hospital in July 2013 claiming she was suffering a miscarriage. She is now serving a 20-year sentence. Christine Taylor, who fell down the stairs in Iowa, faced a similar fate in 2010, although she just spent a couple of nights in jail.

In a 2013 peer-reviewed study, Lynne Paltrow of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women and Jeanne Flavin uncovered hundreds of cases in which pregnant women had been arrested or otherwise deprived of physical liberty on the suspicion of intentionally trying to harm their fetuses.

"In a majority of these cases, women who had no intention of ending a pregnancy went to term and gave birth to a healthy baby," they wrote in a subsequent New York Times op-ed. Indeed: According to a 2015 Guttmacher Institute report, the same laws being used to prosecute American women for inducing abortions on their own "are even being used to pursue women who are merely suspected of having self-induced an abortion, but in fact had suffered miscarriages."

According to Ávila-Guillen, laws that seek to prevent women from terminating their own pregnancies protect the rights of fetuses while blatantly disregarding those of women. "With laws that put women first, you don't see cases like these," she said.