In Mexico, what happens when a miscarriage is treated as a crime?

Dafne McPherson Veloz, center, is hugged by her daughter on the day of her release from prison in January. McPherson Veloz served three years on the charge of homicide after she miscarried her pregnancy. She was cleared of that charge in January. (Photo by Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico)

by Mar García, Reporter, and Marissa Revilla, Senior Reporter 

A note about this series: Global Press Journal reporters around the world examined their communities’ approaches to reproductive health, including values and priorities and how international policies impact them. Read the other stories in this month-long series here.

TEKAX, MEXICO — Evelia Mutul Caamal couldn’t speak Spanish when doctors asked her why she’d come to a hospital with her premature newborn wrapped in blankets, in need of urgent medical care.
She couldn’t tell them that she’d been raped about seven months prior, and that she’d menstruated throughout her pregnancy. She couldn’t describe how, earlier that day, severe cramps had driven her running outside of her house, only to collapse on a pile of construction materials as blood gushed out of her.

She couldn’t explain that when her mother found her there, she also found a prematurely-born infant, alive.

There was no interpreter to ensure that Mutul Caamal, who only spoke Maya at the time, would understand when a doctor told her that her baby died after coming to the hospital.
What happened next was just as dizzying.

The doctor reported Mutul Caamal to the police as a suspect in a potential abortion case. Abortion is largely illegal throughout most of Mexico, with the exception of Mexico City.

Mutul Caamal says that her mother was urged to sign off on a statement that officials said Mutul Caamal had given to the police. They spoke in Spanish, but Mutul Caamal’s mother, too, only spoke Maya.

“I never gave a statement,” says Mutul Caamal, now 38.

Mutul Caamal was sentenced to 12 years and six months of jail time, which was reduced by two years after an appeal requested by her lawyer. She spoke to Global Press Journal from prison, where she learned Spanish. She has just months left on her sentence.

Mutul Caamal is one of thousands of women in Mexico who have been charged with the crime of abortion after a miscarriage or some other obstetric emergency. The law around abortion is so severe that even women who painfully or traumatically lose their pregnancies, as in Mutul Caamal’s case, wind up being accused of trying to do so on purpose.

The standard for a woman who seeks medical care after a miscarriage to prove that she didn’t attempt an abortion on her own varies widely throughout the country and often depends on local authorities. It’s common for doctors and other hospital staff to report women to local authorities, even after those women voluntarily seek medical care after a miscarriage.

A recent study from Centro Las Libres de Información en Salud Sexual Región Centro, an advocacy organization that focuses on women and children, found that at least 4,118 women in Mexico were charged with the crime of abortion between 2000 and 2017.

Researchers and advocates say it’s likely that many of those women had miscarriages, but were turned over to Mexico’s justice ministry, some before they even received full medical care.

It’s not clear where in the process a woman who has miscarried becomes a target of a criminal investigation.

Felipe Cerón, an obstetrician-gynecologist who works at the state health organization Instituto de Seguridad y Servicios Sociales de los Trabajadores del Estado in Mexico City, told Global Press Journal that he sees no reason why a doctor would be forced to report a miscarriage or stillbirth to police or any other authority.

At least 4,118 women in Mexico were charged with the crime of abortion between 2000 and 2017.Centro Las Libres de Información en Salud Sexual Región Centro

“Legally, we’re not allowed to end a pregnancy except in Mexico City, but we’re not obligated to file a report or legal notice,” he says.

But other doctors say there’s good reason to alert the authorities when a miscarriage occurs or if a woman attempts an abortion.

One doctor at a woman’s hospital in Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico, told Global Press Journal that hospital staff notify prosecutors when an “accidental birth” occurs because they want to avoid being prosecuted in connection with a dead infant.

“We are responsible for wrapping it, putting on its cottons, shrouding it,” the doctor says. “The fetal death record is created and delivered.”

The doctor asked to remain anonymous to avoid problems that might arise from even talking about how medical professionals handle abortions and miscarriages.

A criminal prosecutor in Chiapas, who also asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity surrounding the issue of abortion, told Global Press Journal that hospital social workers report cases in which women appear to have attempted abortions.

Verónica Cruz Sánchez, an advocate at Centro Las Libres de Información en Salud Sexual Región Centro, says police and prosecutors investigate cases with the intention of charging women with a crime, whether or not evidence of a crime exists.

Many of the women who are charged with crimes related to their miscarriages are from rural areas, Cruz Sánchez says, and some are illiterate.

“These women are not going to have a good defense because they don’t have the money to pay,” she says.

Cerón, the obstetrician-gynecologist, says in most cases, it’s difficult to know after the fact whether a terminated pregnancy was due to a miscarriage or an abortion. When a woman takes misoprostol or a similar medication that induces labor, traces of that drug are sometimes present, he says.

It’s not easy to know the circumstances of the termination with a simple exam, he says, “but it can be guessed at.”

Abortion was decriminalized in Mexico City in 2007. Women there can now abort up to the twelfth week of pregnancy. Elsewhere in Mexico, abortion is largely illegal, except when a pregnancy results from rape or, in some states, when a pregnant woman’s life is in danger.

But as Mexico City made it easier for women to seek abortions, the rest of the country dug into its more restrictive laws. Since 2008, 19 of Mexico’s 31 states revised their constitutions or penal codes to state that life begins at conception. Many of those changes directly referenced Mexico City’s 2007 change.

Backed by stricter interpretations of when life begins, state officials are now taking more punitive action in abortion cases than they did before, says Lilia Iñiguez Hernández, a lawyer who until recently worked with Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida (GIRE), an advocacy organization.

Cruz Sánchez, the advocate, says it’s now common for prosecutors to upgrade the crime of abortion to the more serious crime of “homicide by kinship.”

Those prosecutors are echoing the line of authorities in El Salvador, where women who are suspected of having abortions are sometimes charged with homicide or even aggravated homicide, according to Amnesty International.

“The crime of abortion is a non-serious crime, so in the majority of states, bail is paid without going to prison,” Cruz Sánchez says. “That’s why we believe that the authorities prefer to press charges for the crime of homicide, since the sentences are much longer.”

That’s what happened to Dafne McPherson Veloz, who was at work in a department store in the state of Querétaro when she felt a sudden pain. She went to a bathroom and discovered that she was in labor and was hemorrhaging.

McPherson Veloz’s baby was born alive, but it did not survive. Emergency personnel who were called to the scene should have taken McPherson Veloz and the infant to a hospital immediately, according to medical care protocols. But they did not, says Karla Micheel Salas Ramírez, one of McPherson Veloz’s defense lawyers.

Instead, McPherson Veloz was taken to the hospital in police custody and told that she was under investigation for the crime of abortion, says David Peña Rodríguez, another of McPherson Veloz’s lawyers.

Later, he says, they told McPherson Veloz that she would be charged, not with abortion, but with homicide.

McPherson Veloz, already the mother of a 9-year-old girl, was accused of inducing labor and then drowning her baby. She was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

“The sentence is the reflection of this conservative society: full of prejudices, of stereotypes, of the construction of gender roles, that in the end translate into the actions of institutions, of the public service and in injustices like these,” Salas Ramírez says.

In 2017, McPherson Veloz’s lawyers appealed her conviction, citing scientific irregularities in her case. After more than three years in prison, she was cleared of criminal charges in a new trial which took place in January.

Mutul Caamal, too, wants to be cleared of criminal charges, but she’s not sure she wants to leave prison. She’s nearly completed her sentence, but she’s scared.

She says her mother and brother tried to bring charges against the man who raped her, but he retaliated violently.

“I’m afraid, because he is looking for revenge,” she says.

Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.

This article was originally published at Global Press Journal.

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