Under the cover of infanticide
Abortion groups use a controversial case to push back against El Salvador’s pro-life laws
In 2008, El Salvador officials convicted and imprisoned a woman known as Manuela for committing infanticide against her newborn son. Less than two years later, she died from cancer while serving her sentence. Pro-abortion groups are now attempting to use the case to overturn El Salvador’s pro-life laws protecting all babies from abortion. They are trying to convince the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that punishing abortion as a crime leads to the unjust conviction of innocent women. Parties are expecting a judgment during the next session period, which will run from April 19 to May 13.
“In El Salvador … pro-abortion groups have not been able to find a single woman in jail for abortion,” said Ligia Castaldi, a professor at Ave Maria School of Law in Florida. “Now they’re coming up with women who are in prison for infanticide, and they’re passing those cases for abortion. But if you actually look at their jail penalties, they were convicted for infanticide.”
Pro-abortion groups have used dozens of infanticide cases like Manuela’s to fight laws protecting unborn babies in their “Las17” campaign. The Center for Reproductive Rights claims Manuela experienced a miscarriage and received “inadequate medical diagnosis and treatment” while serving her sentence. The pro-abortion groups claim Manuela experienced an “obstetric emergency” and passed out around the time of delivering the baby. According to Manuela’s testimony, her sister told her the child was stillborn, and their mother cut the cord and buried the body. Manuela also said she did not know she was pregnant. When she arrived at the hospital, she said the doctor treating her accused her of seeking an abortion.
Authorities have acquitted other women in similar cases. In 2016, young rape victim Evelyn Beatriz Hernández delivered her 32-week-old baby into an outdoor toilet. Her mother said she later found the girl passed out by the bathroom. Like Manuela, Hernández claimed she didn’t know she was pregnant and that she and her mother didn’t know the baby was in the septic tank. After serving 33 months of her 30-year prison sentence, a judge overturned her conviction due to a lack of evidence and ordered a retrial. A court in 2018 acquitted another woman with a similar story: Imelda Cortez also said she gave birth in a bathroom and did not know she was pregnant.
But Manuela’s conviction record cited evidence suggesting her claims are implausible. An autopsy found Manuela’s baby was full-term, suggesting delivery would have taken some time, and that the child was born alive. Someone had forcibly pulled out the baby’s umbilical cord, causing him to bleed to death while he suffocated in the septic tank where law enforcement officials later found his body. The court convicted Manuela in 2008. State attorneys also argue Manuela did receive treatment for her cancer—a condition that they say was terminal before she entered prison.
“Even if the story told by the petitioning organizations were true, which it is not,” Castaldi said, “this argument relates to prison conditions and has nothing to do with the alleged obstetric emergency. Manuela died from cancer, not from the supposed abortion.”
Regardless, pro-abortion groups are using the case to argue women like Manuela are victims of El Salvador’s pro-life laws and to call on the country to stop punishing infanticide cases and to legalize abortion through executive order. Meanwhile, as Castaldi wrote in a brief to the court, “Baby boy Dolores Gabriel Hernandez, the victim of the crime, goes unnamed and ignored in the lawsuit.” The officials who found his body and ensured his proper burial gave Dolores his name, which means “pains” or “sufferings.”
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