Teodora del Carmen Vaquez was nine months old and working in a school cafeteria. She felt extreme pain in the back of her neck like a crackling hammer. After calling 911 seven times, she fell unconscious in a bathroom filled with blood.
This nightmare is very common in El Salvador, which is a Catholic country. Abortion is prohibited in all circumstances. Even stillbirths and miscarriages are not allowed. Women who have been accused of killing their babies are often sentenced to years or decades in prison.
Vasquez lost her almost full-term fetus when she regained consciousness. Instead of calling an ambulance, officers drove Vasquez in a pickup truck through heavy rain to a station. She was accused of violating El Salvador’s strictest abortion law. Authorities rushed her to hospital where she was tied by her left foot to an electric gurney. She was convicted, prosecuted and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for aggravated murder.
Vasquez said, "This is the reality we have lived. And I am not alone." Vasquez was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for what she always claimed was stillbirth. "Any woman arrested for having an abortion is considered the most evil and heartless person."
Vasquez said that "from the moment we get pregnant we become incubators." She was released in 2018 after her sentence was reduced. "We lose all our rights, because we can only take care of the product within us. It is violence against us.
Advocates for abortion rights claim that the law has led a wide range of human rights violations against Salvadoran women. It should be a warning to the United States where over 20 states will ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court in the coming weeks.
While some states may have exceptions in cases like rape and incest, others will likely not have any except for the threat to a pregnant women's life. This would mean that some victims of rape may have to carry unwanted pregnancies past term, and obstetric emergencies might be mistaken for intentional abortions according to Catalina Martinez Coral (New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights Latin America and Caribbean director).
Martinez Coral stated that these states will experience similar circumstances to those of El Salvador's women.
While some anti-abortion activists in the U.S. claim they don't support prosecuting women who have had an abortion, others disagree. Louisiana legislators failed to push a bill this past year that would allow such prosecutions. Tom Ascol, a leading contender for the Southern Baptist Convention's next presidency, supports classifying the procedure in homicide.
Women were able to have abortions when there was a risk to their lives, severe fetal malformations that are incompatible with life, and rape in El Salvador. This country, home to 6.5 million people, is located between Guatemala and Honduras on Central America's Pacific Coast.
However, that was overturned in the 1990s by conservative lawmakers, anti-abortion activists and the Catholic Church. This was followed by a constitutional amendment which defined life as beginning at conception.
It is currently one of four countries in Western Hemisphere that has total abortion bans, but it stands out because it aggressively prosecutes. Vasquez is one of many women who have been convicted of aggravated murder, which can lead to a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.
According to the Citizen Group for the Deccriminalization Abortion (CGDA), El Salvador has tried to prosecute at least 181 women who suffered obstetric emergencies over the past 20 years. With the support of the group and its allies, at least 65 women were released from prison.
"It is well-known that pregnancy loss occurs for natural reasons all over the globe. ... "Here, that's punishable," stated Morena Herrera the director of the nonprofit.
El Salvador requires doctors and nurses in El Salvador to report suspected abortions or face prosecution. Women who present at hospitals after miscarriages or botched abortions are often turned over for investigation.
Most of the punishment and prosecution falls on young, poor women. They lack access to medical care and cannot travel abroad for an abortion. They may be victims of rape in countries with high rates of this crime.
Imelda, a woman like this, was repeatedly raped by her mother's boyfriend from the age of 8 to 18. She then fell pregnant by him. She gave birth in a latrine to the baby and lost consciousness after giving birth. The baby survived, but Imelda was charged with attempted murder due to the circumstances surrounding the birth.
After a judge ruled that she hadn't tried to kill her baby, she was released from prison.
Imelda strongly believes that a woman shouldn't be forced to have a fetus from a sex relationship. She has been studying nursing since her release and hopes to be a better nurse to help others in similar situations.
"What young girl wants to be a mom?" They are innocent," Imelda stated. They really want to play and study. "I've always wanted to be a teacher, not a mother."
The Associated Press does not usually identify victims of sexual assault; the AP is identifying Imelda by her first name.
Karen, a 21-year-old woman, fainted in her grandmother’s home alone. The woman was handcuffed to a hospital bed and died. After a police interrogation, she was convicted of aggravated murder in 2015 and sentenced to a 30 year prison term.
"They told me I was a murderer, and that I would be paying for my crime," she stated. "That I was going rot in prison."
Karen was told by other prisoners that she did not deserve to die in prison. She was held captive for seven years, and she gained strength from her son, believing in her innocence, before being released in December.
Karen, like other women interviewed by AP shared her story. Karen agreed to be photographed under the condition that her full name would not be revealed due to privacy concerns, possible reprisals, and societal stigma regarding abortion.
Karen is trying to make up the time lost by playing soccer with her son, 14, and making his favorite meals, refried beans or fried plantains. She is still a Catholic, but she has become disillusioned by the church's stances on abortion.
Karen stated, "If they were up to it, we shouldn’t have been released." According to society and the church, we should still be serving a sentence for the crime that was committed.
The Catholic Church and a growing number of evangelical churches exert a huge influence in this overwhelmingly Christian country. Some lawmakers used Scripture last year to support the abortion ban.
Guillermo Gallegos, a lawmaker from El Salvador, keeps what he calls his "altar" -- a wooden table with images of Jesus and other Jesus pictures that he collected on a trip through Russia; a bottle of water blessed by Pope Francis; a statue depicting the Virgin Mary; and the Ten Commandments in a silver one.
Gallegos stated in an interview that allowing abortion would contradict deeply held beliefs of a large portion of El Salvador's population.
Gallegos stated that there is no reason why abortion should be made illegal in the country. There are strong pro-abortion movements in the country for certain reasons. However, they have not been able thrive here in the parliament where the decision would be made.
He said, "Approving abortion would be against our faith."
Since the beginning, the Vatican has been opposed to abortion. This has not changed under Francis. It has been repeatedly condemned by the pontiff as evidence of "throwaway cultural" and he asked in 2019, at a Catholic-sponsored conference: "Is it legal to hire a hitman for a problem to be solved?"
Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez praised Francis after he celebrated Mass at St. Francis of Assisii Parish in San Salvador's capital, San Salvador. He also echoed his call for abortion to be a violent act.
The cardinal said that "We live in a culture based on death" and warned that it would lead to "total disaster."
Anti-abortion activists claim that women who share their stories have killed their babies. They also say that they are being led by abortion rights nonprofits in an effort to change the law. Interview requests were not answered by local anti-abortion organizations and they declined to speak to the AP.
El Salvador's Health Minister declined to comment via a spokesperson from the presidency. He also stated that no other government officials would accept interviews.
Roe v. Wade is in danger in the United States. Latin American abortion rights activists, who used to look to their northern neighbor for a model, have moved their eyes to Latin America, Colombia, and Mexico. These countries have relaxed restrictions under the pressure of women's movements pushing this issue through the courts.
The Center for Reproductive Rights was among several groups that lobbied for the decriminalization of abortion in Colombia for up to 24 weeks. It is currently working to protect Roe.
Martinez Coral stated that she hoped the "green wave" would also inspire her sisters in America. Martinez Coral was referring to the handkerchiefs made of colorful materials at protests organized by pro-abortion rights supporters in the region. It must be protected everywhere.
Jocelyn Viterna is a Harvard University sociologe who has reviewed court records from many cases in which Salvadoran women have been convicted of pregnancy-related murder.
Viterna stated that if this happens in El Salvador, women in the United States who have natural miscarriages could be more likely to be suspected of having an abortion. We may ask, "Did they take any pills? What if they drank too much? Is that what caused you to lose your child?
Herrera of Citizen Group agreed with U.S. activists that Roe could have a disproportionate effect on women of color and women of low income if it disappears -- similar to Roe's impact in El Salvador where it has upended poor families.
Jesus, 22, was eight years old when his mother, who had lost her baby in 2008, arrested him. His 5-year-old brother and he were left with their grandparents, subsistence farmers. Manuela, the mother of the boys, was only identified in court proceedings as Manuela. She died in 2010 after serving a 30-year sentence.
"Death," Jesus said. "That's what El Salvador did to my mom when it sent her to prison -- it killed her and sentenced her kids to a miserable life."
He was raped for years by his mother's accusations. Last November, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled El Salvador had violated her rights.
The court found Manuela's unborn baby was the result of preeclampsia, a condition in which health workers incorrectly prioritized reporting Manuela to authorities over treating her medical situation. The court ordered that the government pay damages to Manuela's two sons.
Jesus tapped his feet nervously in an interview. He said that he had decided to tell the story to help other children. "My mom's name will always be a fond memory."
Vasquez was also born in poverty in rural El Salvador. She helped her parents to farm before she moved to the capital as an adolescent. At 24 years old, she was sentenced to prison. She was only in fourth grade when she went to school and earned her high school diploma behind bars.
She vowed to continue fighting for the rights of other women and to help them start new lives. She is now the face of El Salvador's abortion rights movement. She travels across the country to meet women in similar situations and recruits them to her group, Mujeres Libres.
Mujeres Libres hosts performances, lessons in music, and workshops about how to start small businesses inside a home they loaned. On the walls, a photo by Nelson Mandela is displayed along with photos of the women during their time in prison.
Vasquez said that "the pain of one woman equals every woman's pain." She was given a 2018 Swedish human rights and democracy prize. Recently, she graduated college with a communications degree and was featured on a documentary.
Mariana Lopez, 40 years old, was imprisoned in 2000 after she lost her baby and served 17 year sentence. She joined Mujeres Libres to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a baker.
Lopez stated that Teodora was the one who had to fight the hardest because she had the courage to stand up for herself and others.
Her 7-year old daughter, Jennifer Lopez, takes music lessons at her home with other children. They live off the sale of baguettes Lopez bakes in her small home two hours from San Salvador.
Lopez stated, "Perhaps, we could have had more courage, but it was difficult for us to find someone to push us." Lopez added, "Now we feel a bit happier, maybe even happier, because we can share in another stage in our lives -- in freedom."
Cindy, another woman, was jailed after she gave birth in a mall bathroom. She was a mother to Justin, a 4-year old boy, and was also studying English and tourism at the time. She had to put off her education and parenting. Justin was born in 2004.
"The losses are what I think about the most. ... Total loss of all families, homes, houses and children. Cindy stated that everything is gone. Cindy said, "Everything is lost." How will you recover your time with your family?
She is now 30 and has been released from prison. Each month, she must travel to the capital to sign her parole papers. Justin and her live with their parents. She's also back at school. To make ends meet, she makes and sells pinatas. She made one for her son's special day in the shape of a dinosaur to help him get through college.
They both dream of travelling together. Cindy stated, "To forget all," and "to start over in a new location."
Vasquez stated that she is encouraged by the children of these women who told her that they will continue her legacy long after her death.
Vasquez stated, "It lifts my spirits because I believe that these processes should start when we are young." "So, the message...especially for mothers around the world should be: Teach your daughters their rights now so they can defend human rights.
She continued, "It's really crucial to try to change El Salvador," "so that our history doesn’t get repeated elsewhere"