Human Rights

Lawyer in El Salvador says clients were charged with abortion crimes after suffering miscarriages

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Dennis Muñoz grew up in a conservative El Salvadorian family, and while the birth of his daughter inspired him to become an attorney, he never anticipated that he’d become known as the county’s “abortion lawyer,” the New York Times reports.

The title seems somewhat misleading. Muñoz represents women in El Salvador—where since 1998 abortion for any reason is illegal—who have been charged with aggravated homicide, although they suffered miscarriages or complications at childbirth, according to the article. They face sentences of up to 40 years.

The penalty for assisting with an abortion includes a prison sentence of up to 12 years. Some say there have been many wrongful convictions against women who suffered miscarriages and the hospital staff who cared for them.

An El Salvadoran parliamentarian recently introduced a bill that would increase the maximum penalty for abortion to 50 years.

“There is a war against women in this country. And if you’re poor and uneducated like a majority of the women, you might be next,” Muñoz says.

One of the first women he represented charged with abortion crimes is Cristina Quintanilla. According to Muñoz, Quintanilla suffered a miscarriage in 2004, when she was seven months pregnant, and lost consciousness during labor. When Quintanilla woke up, she was chained to a hospital bed and later received a 30-year sentence.

Muñoz argued that a medical examiner never established a cause of death, and Quintanilla’s sentence was reduced to four years. It’s reportedly the largest sentence reduction in the country’s legal history.

The work hasn’t garnered support from some of Muñoz’s friends and family. He was kicked out of a Catholic community service group, according to the article, and at one point his twin brother refused to speak to him.

The disapproval hasn’t been a deterrent, and the work has brought some victories. A 22-year-old client, arrested last year after her baby was stillborn, was recently released from jail, due to a lack of evidence.

“One day I hope these women won’t have to deal with this… one day this country won’t be in the dark ages,” Muñoz told the New York Times. “Until then, they can all call me names … until then, I will just nod proudly.”

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