A baby is lost; the mother is prosecuted

For the past week, the global media have reported the case of Evelyn Beatriz Hernández Cruz, a teenager condemned to jail for thirty years for aggravated homicide after losing her baby when she was 8 months pregnant.    Most of the English language reporting is written for headlines and misses some of the complexities of the story.    The BBC probably has the best summary in English:
In April last year, Ms Hernandez gave birth in the latrine of her home in a small rural community. She lost consciousness after losing large amounts of blood.  When her mother took her to hospital, leaving the baby's remains behind, Ms Hernandez was detained on suspicion of procuring an abortion. 
Eleven days later she had an initial court hearing and she has been in custody since. Her charge was changed to aggravated homicide when no evidence was found of her having had an abortion. 
Although she was in the third trimester, Ms Hernandez said she had confused the symptoms of pregnancy with stomach ache because she had experienced intermittent bleeding, which she thought was her menstrual period.
She told the court: "I did not want to kill my son." 
The judge did not believe she did not know she was pregnant. 
Much of the case centered on whether the baby was dead at birth or died in the moments afterwards, but medical experts were unable to determine the answer definitively. 
The human rights organisation Amnesty International condemned the sentence and Ms Hernandez's lawyer, Bertha de Leon, said she would appeal. 
Efe Alberto Romero, from the Citizens' Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion, said witnesses could not determine whether Ms Hernandez had intended for the baby to die, and that she had become pregnant due to repeated rapes in a forced sexual relationship.  Her lawyers said she had been too frightened to report the rapes. Some reports say the man who raped her was a gang member. 
Pro-choice campaigners in El Salvador and around the world have argued that the country's absolute abortion ban criminalises people who have not sought abortions but have had natural miscarriages, as well as forcing women to carry pregnancies to term despite risk to their own lives.
Several English language news reports state that Hernandez was convicted for failure to seek prenatal care.   Reading the various reports of this case (I was not in the courtroom), I think this is incorrect.    There was testimony that a local health promoter came to check on her three different times because local people in the community were saying she was pregnant.    She or her mother did not permit the health visit, but this was not alleged to be the cause of the fetal death.    Prosecutors said this proved (a) Hernandez should have known she was pregnant, and (b) she refused the visits to cover up the fact that she was pregnant.

The prosecutors' overall version of events was much different from that reported in the news reports.  Prosecutors attempted to prove that the pregnancy was the result of a consensual relationship, that Hernandez and her mother were hiding the pregnancy, that Hernandez was enrolled to study public health and should have known she was pregnant and that the baby was born alive and then dumped down the latrine.

Perhaps the best analysis came from Virginia Lemus, writing in a blog at El Faro.    Lemus points out that Hernandez case is one like so many others.   A teenager, living in poverty, poorly educated, oppressed, loses a baby.    A male-dominated healthcare and judicial system prosecutes her for aggravated homicide.   There is little actual proof, but the courts don't care.

As Lemus says, the middle and upper classes never leave babies dead in their bathrooms.   They have medical insurance, and their obstetricians don't treat them as idiots.   When they miscarry and lose a baby, it is treated as a tragedy and a time for grief, not a crime.

This was not a case about abortion.    This was a case about a premature birth and whether the baby was born dead or alive    If born alive, did the mother kill the baby?

This is a case about poverty.   It is a case about gender bias.   It is a case about weak judicial processes.   It is a case about lack of sexual and reproductive education.   It is about a lack of attention to women's health.   It is a case like too many before.


Unknown said…
Thanks, Tim. When trying to make sense of this case through local papers I also realized that the reality was oversimplified in international news.

It also seems as though the judge did not take into account the results of the forensic report. At least that's what I understood.

I also wrote an opinion piece on this topic (in Spanish). What I hope is that in 30 years, when Evelyn is set to leave jail, things will have changed in El Salvador.