Justice for Evelyn in Landmark El Salvador Abortion Trial

Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez is 21 years old. She has spent almost 3 years in prison in El Salvador with 27 left on her sentence. Her crime? Suffering from a stillbirth after being raped.

Yesterday, in a landmark retrial that was the first of its kind in the country, Hernandez was declared innocent and cleared of all charges. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she walked out of the courtroom with her mother and lawyer into a crowd of cheering supporters.

In July 2017, Hernandez was convicted of aggravated homicide after falling unconscious and giving birth to a baby that was later found dead. Despite maintaining that she had not known she was pregnant, she was accused of deliberately killing her baby and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Due to lack of evidence, Hernandez’s conviction was overturned in February this year and a retrial was ordered. Despite ferocious pressure from prosecutors, the judge concluded “there was no way to prove a crime.”

In El Salvador, sexual and reproductive health legislation is harsh and inhumane. Abortion is illegal in all circumstances, including instances of rape, incest and risk to life. Women who suffer from obstetric emergencies like miscarriages or stillbirths are routinely suspected of intentionally ending their pregnancies and accused of murder. Convictions are pursued aggressively and sentences are severe.

It is estimated that since 1998, over 600 women have been imprisoned under El Salvador’s abortion laws, many serving up to 40 years in jail.

Paula Avila Guillen, human rights expert and Director of Latin America Initiatives at the Women’s Equality Center, explains: “El Salvador violates the human rights of women, not only because of the total prohibition of abortion but because of the arbitrary and erroneous application of the law that sends women to prison.”

Sentencing a teenage rape victim to 30 years in prison sends a direct message from those with all the power to those with very little: we set the laws, we decide what happens to you, we are in control.

But times are changing.

Last year, 20-year-old Imelda Cortez was released from prison after almost 2 years awaiting trial for attempted homicide. Like Hernandez, Cortez became pregnant as the result of rape. Like Hernandez, she hadn’t known she was pregnant. And like Hernandez, Cortez woke the world up to the reality of El Salvador’s absurd and cruel criminalization of vulnerable women and girls.


Miscarriage is not a crime. Still birth is not a crime. Abortion is not a crime. What is criminal is using the law to force women and girls to bear children against their will.

What better way to restrict women’s power and agency than to lock them into child bearing. And if they appear to resist, what better way to punish them than to simply lock them up.

In our current climate, where abortion rights continue to be denied and progress is not only slow but actively reversing, Evelyn Hernandez’s release is a welcome reminder that activism works. Her case offers hope to all those still imprisoned under heinous laws and to all those currently denied human rights. Hernandez’s retrial gives new hope for reform and for a deeper understanding of the catastrophic human and social impact of abortion bans.

Evelyn’s story, like Imelda’s, is about far more than a debate on the morality of abortion. It’s a story about systematic persecution by unjust justice systems that treat victims as perpetrators and women as less than human. And like recent stories of women in Argentina, Chile, Northern Ireland and Alabama, it’s a story about fighting to defend human rights.

Speaking outside the courtroom yesterday, 21-year-old Evelyn told the crowds of supporters: “My future is to keep studying and achieve my goals… There are many women who are still locked up and I call for them to be freed soon, too.”

Activism, social pressure, solidarity – they work. But we have to keep going, in every case, in every country. Evelyn finally has justice, who’s next?

#JusticiaParaEvelyn, #OjosEnElSalvador, #JusticeForEvelyn, #EyesOnElSalvador

Campaigning for Care & Compassion in Ireland

I’m 23 years old and I grew up in a particularly rural and conservative part of Ireland.  

The only time I ever heard the word ‘abortion’ mentioned in school was when we were doing a play in the Irish language. There was a scene where the characters were discussing abortion. I remember asking the teacher what the word translated as. She replied, “It means murder”.

I know now that if you break the translation down it would be similar to the word for a fetus. It doesn’t literally translate as murder. But that was how it was explained it to us.  

I studied reproductive biology at university and did my dissertation project in an abortion clinic in 2017. This involved interviewing doctors and nurses working in the clinic in Edinburgh about their relationship with their patients. I saw how the patients were talked about with such respect and compassion. It really brought home the stark contrast of how women in Ireland were treated.

This spurred me into action. I decided to go home and help with the Yes campaign, ahead of the 2018 referendum. Legislation is how social change is made and how rights are created.  

It was exciting to be part of a big campaign. My colleagues have been in this fight for decades, but they’d never had a national referendum like this before. For the first time ever, they said it felt like everything was to play for.

The pressure was immense because it felt like every woman in Ireland, both past and present generations, was counting on us to get this right.  

My role involved researching policy briefs or answering questions for journalists, such as abortion rates in Switzerland and Portugal after their referendums. I was also answering the phone to women ringing the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) in floods of tears, saying, “I’m pregnant and I don’t know what to do”.   

For decades, every single day, women experiencing an unintended or crisis pregnancy have been ringing the IFPA to access information and counselling. Trying to calm each woman, telling her what we could do, hearing her relief and hoping I’d made a bit of difference to her just made it all incredibly real for me.   

Many people found the No campaign posters distressing due to their incredibly negative and violent language, for example, ‘a license to kill’. I think that negativity backfired for the No campaign, as I think the Yes campaign was seen as more sensible.

I think recent scandals in the Catholic church played a role too because the No campaign was using messaging like, “Oh yes, the 8th Amendment has led to an island where we really treasure our children”. This felt tone deaf in a country where there have been so many child abuse scandals in recent years.

I also think it drove people away from the No campaign because it clearly wasn’t based on the reality of the Ireland we’ve all been living in. No campaigners displayed a kind of moral snobbery which felt like preaching. It might have worked on the Ireland of another lifetime, but not now.  

On the other end of the spectrum, the vote Yes posters appeared in rural communities for the first time, which I think was very powerful for people who might have felt quite isolated or just hadn’t talked to anyone in their community about abortion before.

In the final weeks leading up to the vote, the most important conversations were happening at the school gates or at kitchen tables over cups of tea.  

It still feels like a dream that we won. It wasn’t until they called out the two tally boxes from my home village and I heard Yes passed there by 57% that I realized what was truly happening. That’s when I knew it wasn’t just Dublin and the cities. The whole country was behind us. This realisation made me cry. It made me very proud to be from rural Ireland. 

I went to Dublin castle to celebrate. At one point, the crowd spontaneously started chanting Savita’s name. Even in a moment of celebration, we all remembered her death, and that felt very emotional.

I recall watching some kids playing, and their mothers were standing hands on hips just watching them, and they were all wearing repeal jumpers. One of them was pregnant and there were two men there with their child too. For me that was such a beautiful symbolic image of how far Ireland has come. 

For me, abortion is about motherhood at the end of the day. It’s about allowing us the right to be the best mothers we can be, if and only when we decide to do so.

Read other personal experiences like Áine’s on the Irish referendum.

As of January 2019, the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) provides early medical abortion up to 9 weeks of pregnancy. Abortion care is free for women living in the Republic of Ireland.