A rape victim jailed for allegedly attempting to abort her unborn child is facing 20 years behind bars in El Salvador.
Imelda Cortez, who became pregnant aged 18 after being raped by her stepfather, denies trying to abort her baby, which is a crime under any circumstances in the central American nation.
Judges will consider medical evidence presented by doctors to determine if Cortez intentionally tried to induce an abortion and either convict her on attempted murder charges, or decide to set her free. Her daughter is now nearly two years old.
“Imelda is despondent. Her case could go either way,” her lawyer Alejandra Romero said.
“But if the judge is objective and looks at the evidence, which doesn’t show she harmed her child and committed a crime, Imelda should be set free,” she said.
Regardless of Cortez’s guilt or innocence, the harsh penalty she faces has revived debate about El Salvador’s total ban on abortion under any circumstances, even for rape victims.
“Imelda was repeatedly raped by her stepfather from the age of eleven. DNA tests prove her child is the daughter of her stepfather,” said Romero, adding the stepfather has since been imprisoned on charges of raping a minor.
“Yet Imelda is being treated as a criminal, not a victim of sexual violence,” said Romero, who works for the Citizen Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion (CDFA) in El Salvador.
Cortez is one of about 25 women in jail accused of inducing abortions, who say they were wrongfully jailed for murder, when instead they suffered miscarriages, stillbirths or pregnancy complications, according to the CDFA.
Lawyers at CDFA say convictions for such crimes are often based on flimsy medical evidence as it is difficult for doctors to prove if someone has had an abortion, let alone attempts to do so.
Earlier this year, the United Nations called on El Salvador to revise its abortion law and review all such cases in which women have been jailed.
In Cortez’s case, she was taken to a hospital after giving birth where doctors said she intentionally tried to induce an abortion, despite the fact the child was born healthy, according to Romero.
Mariana Ardila, a lawyer at rights group Women’s Link Worldwide, said judges have a duty to consider the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy, even if they find Cortez guilty.
“It is crucial that the judiciary, while dispensing justice in crimes related to pregnancy, take into account the individual circumstances and background of women and girls,” said Ardila.
“In this case, the circumstances related to the sexual violence Imelda faced and the afterward consequences on her life.”
An online petition has so far collected nearly 45,000 signatures calling on authorities to release Cortez from prison.
“While the law remains so restrictive, such cases will only continue,” Romero said.