Activists Exploit Tragic Stillbirth Case to Try to Legalize Abortion in El Salvador

International   |   Matthew Balan   |   Sep 24, 2014   |   12:47PM   |   San Salvador, El Salvador

NPR’s Jason Beaubien spotlighted a woman’s “nightmare with El Salvador’s abortion law” on Monday’s All Things Considered.

Beaubien zeroed in on the case of Christina Quintanilla, who served four years of a thirty-year prison sentence, after a dubious conviction for the death of her unborn child. He also cited unnamed “activists who are pushing to liberalize El Salvador’s abortion law [who] argue that the total ban is unjust because it only applies to the poor.”

The correspondent later hyped the Catholic Church’s influence in getting the pro-life law passed in the Central American country:

JASON BEAUBIEN: …El Salvador is a predominantly Catholic nation, and it’s one of several Latin American countries where abortion is completely illegal. The Catholic Church was influential in amending El Salvador’s constitution in 1999 to state explicitly that life begins at conception. Prior to this, abortion was permitted in some instances – including pregnancies that resulted from violence or incest….

Prior to 1999, abortions were also permitted on medical grounds in El Salvador; and technically, they still are allowed if a pregnant woman’s life is in danger. But last year, a court battle over a woman with lupus transfixed the country. The woman, known publicly as Beatrice, was carrying a fetus with terminal birth defects, and her doctors argued in court and the media that she faced kidney failure if she didn’t get an abortion. The Salvadoran Supreme Court, however, refused to grant her permission to terminate her pregnancy. She ultimately had a cesarean section, and the baby died a few hours later.

elsalvHost Robert Siegel introduced Beaubien’s report by noting that “NPR has been looking at the way abortion is regulated around the world. Latin America has some of the strictest abortion laws, with some exceptions for cases of rape or to protect the health of the mother. But in El Salvador, abortion is completely banned. A woman accused of terminating a pregnancy can face up to 50 years in prison…these laws have had broad consequences for medical professionals and for pregnant women.”

The NPR journalist led with his “nightmare” labeling, and spent the first part of the segment outlining Quintanilla’s miscarriage in 2004 and her subsequent court case:

JASON BEAUBIEN: Christina Quintanilla’s nightmare with El Salvador’s abortion law began on October 26 of 2004. Christina was 17 years old, and seven months pregnant with her second child. She was staying at her mother’s small apartment in a gang-controlled housing project on the outskirts of San Salvador. It was the middle of the night. She couldn’t get comfortable. Her belly was bulging. Her back was aching. Her stomach was upset.

CHRISTINA QUINTANILLA (translated, from the original Spanish): I felt – I don’t know how to describe it – a pain – a terrible pain. And then, I felt like I couldn’t breathe – like I was drowning – and in that moment, I couldn’t call anyone. I couldn’t speak. I just remember banging on the bathroom door.

BEAUBIEN: Quintanilla says she went into labor. And the next thing she remembers, her mom was picking her up from a pool of blood on the bathroom floor. Both Quintanilla and her mother, Carmen, say the baby was stillborn….Christina says she passed out, and woke up in hospital bed. She remembers being confused. The doctors seemed to be wearing white lab coats, instead of the usual blue medical scrubs. But the thing was they weren’t doctors: they were actually criminal investigators.

QUINTANILLA (translated, from the original Spanish): This seems strange to me. And then, they said, Christina, as of now, you’re under arrest for the murder of your child. I was shocked, and I was confused about what they had told me. I couldn’t speak.

BEAUBIEN: El Salvador’s abortion law requires doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals to report suspected abortions. It turns out that someone at the hospital had denounced Quintanilla to the police. As a result, she was dragged into a court case that lasted almost 12 months, and ended with her being sentenced to 30 years in prison….

The forensic lab report lists the cause of death of her fetus as undetermined. OB/GYNs contacted by NPR say Christina’s account of what happened is consistent with a severe placental abruption, in which the placenta detaches from the uterine wall. The hospital found no evidence that she’d intentionally aborted the pregnancy. Yet, the district attorney pushed forward anyway – arguing that she had terminated the pregnancy because she couldn’t afford to support another child. During the trial, Quintanilla says her public defender was awful, and couldn’t even remember her name.

QUINTANILLA (translated, from the original Spanish): At times, she was like, I’m defending – what’s your name, honey? And I’d have to reply, my name is – I don’t know. It’s like her mind was somewhere else or something.

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BEAUBIEN: When she was convicted, Christina left her young son, Daniel, with her mother, and reported to the women’s prison in Ilopango.

Beaubien continued with his “Catholic Church was influential” hype, and played one soundbite from a local bishop. However, he followed this with two clips from a gynecologist who bemoaned the pro-life law:

BEAUBIEN: …Prominent gynecologists in the country say the total ban on abortion ties doctors’ hands; requires medical staff to betray the confidence of their patients; and, at times, is detrimental to women’s health. Take, for instance, an ectopic pregnancy. This is when an embryo embeds itself outside of the uterus – usually in one of the fallopian tubes. The growing fetus can cause the fallopian tube to burst, and produce massive, life-threatening bleeding. In the developed world, such pregnancies are usually terminated – either with medication or surgery – but not in El Salvador.

DR. GUILLERMO ANTONIO ORTIZ AVANDONIO: When we see the heartbeat, we say, well, okay, the fetus is alive. So, the law is to protect that fetus, so we cannot do anything.

BEAUBIEN: Doctor Guillermo Antonio Ortiz Avandonio is the head of obstetrics at the National Maternity Hospital in San Salvador. He says he can’t do much for women with ectopic pregnancies. They’re admitted to the hospital, and then, the doctors simply wait – either for the fetus to die on its own or for the mother’s fallopian tube to rupture. Once hemorrhaging starts, then the medical staff rush to save the life of the mother. Avandonio says there’s no way an ectopic embryo is going to survive, and this major surgery for the mother could be avoided if doctors were allowed to terminate the woman’s pregnancy.

AVANDONIO: We could not offer another option that, maybe, the patient wants. We cannot do it – even if we know that is the best option we can offer – because law is against that option.

The correspondent did cite a second gynecologist who stated that “most abortions are never detected, and he says feminist activists over-exaggerate the impact of El Salvador’s abortion law.”

Near the end of the report, Beaubien went back to Quintanilla’s story, and pointed out that “the whole experience has made her afraid of doctors and hospitals:”

BEAUBIEN: …Christina Quintanilla is also now back in her home. After serving four years of her 30 year prison term, a young lawyer, who tumbled across her case, managed to get the sentence overturned. He argued successfully no one ever established the cause of her baby’s death. Quintanilla now lives near the eastern Salvadoran city of San Miguel with her 11-year-old son, Daniel, and her daughter, Alexandra, who was born after she was released from prison. Christina says her life post-prison is peaceful.

QUINTANILLA (translated, from the original Spanish): I look after my children and my family. I help out my relatives. I end up with a little extra money, and so, that’s the good life I now have.

BEAUBIEN: She says, she still thinks about the baby she lost back in 2004.

QUINTANILLA (translated, from the original Spanish): When I see another baby, it takes me back. With time, it’s gotten better. But sometimes, I think, if he was with me, he’d be eight or nine years old, and I think about him. But now I feel like there are some holes that you can’t fill. The love I would have given him, I give to my two children.

BEAUBIEN: Christina may have come to grips with losing a baby, but coming to grips with serving four years in prison for a crime she says she didn’t commit is harder. She blames the hospital for accusing her of abortion, and says that wouldn’t have happened if she’d been able to afford a private clinic. The whole experience has made her afraid of doctors and hospitals.

QUINTANILLA (translated, from the original Spanish): Perhaps, if it was something minor, I’d go back to a hospital. But if I was pregnant again, I would be terrified to go.

BEAUBIEN: And she says if she was bleeding from another possible miscarriage, there’s no way she’d go back to the hospital.

Earlier in 2014, correspondent Lauren Frayer played up the conservative platform of Spain’s ruling party on NPR’s Morning Edition program, as she reported on proposed legislation there that would be, in her words, “one of the toughest abortion laws in Europe – a near-total ban, except in cases of rape or threats to the mother’s health.” However, Frayer didn’t disclose the left-of-center political idelogy of opponents of the proposal. She later hyped that the political party behind the proposed law is “moving to the right – trying to keep members from defecting to a new far-right political party, similar to the Tea Party in the U.S. Note: Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center. He graduated from the University of Delaware in 2003, and worked for the Heritage Foundation from 2003 until 2006, and for Human Life International in 2006. This post originally appeared at MRC’s NewsBusters web site and is reprinted with permission.