Imelda Cortez is a young mother about to turn 21 years old who could spend the next 20 in prison because of El Salvador’s strict anti-abortion measures. Although it has never aborted.
On April 17, 2017, the young woman gave birth to a girl born of rape at the hands of her stepfather, Pablo Henríquez, over 70 years of age.
Cortez, however, assures that she did not know that she was pregnant, as well as threatening her not to report the abuses that began when she was only 12 years old, her stepfather had assured her that she “could not beat children”.
And so it was that one April afternoon, suffering from severe stomach pains, the young woman went to the latrine of her humble home in Jiquilisco, a rural area of the department of Usulutlán, where the birth occurred.
The baby ended up in the excrement and the mother in the hospital. And more than a year and a half later, a local court is preparing to determine whether or not the girl is guilty of “aggravated aggravated homicide,” as the Attorney General of the smallest of the Central American countries claims.
Imelda’s case has become a cause celebre in one of the countries with the most stringent anti-abortion laws in the world | EPA
The argument of Salvadoran prosecutors is that Cortez concealed the pregnancy with the intention of killing her baby, which she then tried to do by throwing her into the septic tank of her house.
Her defense, however, speaks of “denial of pregnancy”, a disorder widely documented in medical literature that in the case of Cortez would also be explained by the recurrent vaginal bleeding suffered until the day of delivery.
The case of Imelda Cortez has become emblematic of the struggle of Salvadorans against the strict laws and policies that govern their sexual and reproductive life.
“It is (a case) serious because the State, far from understanding its position as a victim, criminalizes it,” Marcela Martino, deputy director of the Center for Justice and International Law (Cejil) for Central America and Mexico, told BBC Mundo. He has been following the case closely.
“But it is also paradigmatic because even though it seems abhorrent, it is not the only case (of Salvadoran women criminalized by obstetric emergencies),” Martino added.
El Salvador is one of the five countries in the world where abortion is completely prohibited, regardless of the circumstances.
And women who for some reason do not carry out their pregnancies, or have their children out of the hospital, are often treated as criminals.
In El Salvador, abortion is not allowed under any circumstances | EPA
“There are hundreds of women in the last two decades, since the absolute interruption of pregnancy in El Salvador, have been processed in a large number of cases due to obstetric emergencies, in a large number of cases, poor women, women in situation of extreme vulnerability, “says Martino.
And according to the Guatemalan portal Nómada.gt, in El Salvador at least “24 women who suffered obstetric complications, extrahospital births and spontaneous abortions, are serving sentences of up to 30 years for homicide.”
In the trial that begins this Monday in the court of first instance of Jiquilisco, the jury will surely hear that at the time Cortez was informed of her pregnancy by a doctor whose mother took her after a faint.
“I did not think I was pregnant, because I stained (…) I always stained every month,” Cortez assured however to the Salvadoran magazine Fátum.
“I had gotten into my mind that I could not get pregnant,” added the young woman, who according to a psychological expert opinion presented by the defense also suffers from a slight cognitive delay.
Salvadoran prosecutors accuse Imelda of trying to kill her daughter | AFP
According to her lawyers, what the young woman confused with menstruation may have been obstetric pathological bleeding, which may occur at the time of implantation of the embryo or as a result of infections, among other reasons.
Its defenders also insist that we must also consider the context of abuse and violence that may have caused the condition that in medicine is known as “denial of pregnancy” or “pregnancy denied”.
“Denial of pregnancy”
Indeed, it is not impossible for a woman to be pregnant without getting to assume it, sometimes until the moment of delivery.
“The denial of pregnancy is an important condition that is more common than expected,” says an article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in July 2011 and cited by Fátum.
According to the letter, which summarizes the main studies on the subject, this disorder registers an incidence, at 20 weeks of gestation, of approximately 1 in 475 cases, while “the proportion of cases that persist until delivery is approximately 1 in 2,500 “.
The medical literature ca records numerous cases of women ignorant of their own pregnancies | AFP
“This condition presents legal and ethical challenges that require a carefully considered multidisciplinary approach,” say its authors, Angela Jenkins, Simon Millar and James Robins, whose possible consequences include psychological problems, extrahospital births and neonaticides.
In contrast, for Salvadoran prosecutors, the denial of Cortez’s pregnancy is just one more proof of her treachery and guilt.
“The refusal of Imelda Isabel, to have given birth, and later accept to give information where the newborn was, as well as justify that she did not know that she was pregnant for nine months and throw the baby to the pit, are actions, between others, that the FGR, considers that the crime of attempted aggravated homicide is configured, “said the Public Ministry in a press release.
And the removal of the umbilical cord is also seen with suspicion by the prosecution, although many specialists have stated that it could be broken by the weight of the baby at the time of the unusual delivery.
“It was the accused who cut the umbilical cord that was attached to the newborn’s fetus,” prosecutor Joselyn Alejandrina Bermúdez Hernández said during the initial hearing of the case.
Cortez’s version, however, is that after more than a week of not defecating, he went to the latrine suffering from what he thought were strong colon pains.
“At about 5:00 [in the afternoon] that happened to me, I already felt the pain, I felt like going to do the two and went into the bathroom.” I half felt that I took off my clothes and half sat on the cup, when I felt that something went to the pit, “he told Fátum.
“I was bleeding too much, my mom had already come to work and I shouted: ‘Mom, I’m bleeding!'” He recalls in the interview.
“My mom went to talk to her sister-in-law, and what they did was that they went to talk to the neighbor of the car and they changed me.” As I started to get into the car, I fainted. I was already on the stretcher of the hospital, when I was already getting on the hospital stretcher, “he said.
In the hospital they alerted the police for suspicions of abortion | GETTY IMAGES
Once there, the doctor who attended her observed signs of childbirth. And when Cortez’s mother delivered the placenta expelled by her daughter, she had no doubts.
And following the protocol for women who have extrahospital deliveries and arrive at the hospital without the baby, the resident doctor in charge called the police to address a case of suspected abortion.
“The medical professional questioned her about the place where she had given birth, the accused denied it, but later accepted, justifying ‘that she felt something came out when she was in the service'”, is summarized in the press release of the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic.
“The hospital told the police about the case, so police officers and soldiers inspected the septic tank in the home of the accused (…) After removing the base of the pit, they hear the crying of the newborn , and with the help of a lamp, they manage to locate it full of faeces and a white powder, apparently cal “, adds the same.
The girl was immediately transferred to the hospital and now grows up, healthy, under the care of her great grandmother.
But the justice of a country that says to put the welfare of children first, to the point of protecting them even when they have not yet been born, could end up causing them to grow away from their mother, should they be found guilty.
“The goal that I have is to continue studying and working for the girl, it is a goal that I am carrying and, first of all, I am going to achieve it, because I have to forget all this has happened. the girl, because the girl is not to blame for what happened to me, “Cortez told Fátum in October.
The court of first instance of Jiquilisco will be the one that will decide if it has right to try it.