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Abortion Or Infanticide In El Salvador?

Christina Quintanilla, a mother of two, was featured in an NPR story about abortion restrictions in El Salvador.
John W. Poole
Christina Quintanilla, a mother of two, was featured in an NPR story about abortion restrictions in El Salvador.

Jose Ballester of Miami, Fla., asked with apparent innocence whether an All Things Considered story about abortions in El Salvador was meant to be a "hit piece" aimed at liberalizing that nation's strict anti-abortion laws.

After reviewing the reporting, I can tell you, Mr. Ballester, that, no, it is not a hit piece, but I understand why you ask. The relevance of the main example for the subject of the story is a stretch, some factual details are incomplete and the web and YouTube headlines are one-sided.

She was convicted of murdering a live baby born on her bathroom floor. How is her 30-year sentence an example of abortion enforcement?

But the main thrust of the story—that the Salvadoran law is one of the most restrictive in the world and that poor women and medical professionals are most affected by its enforcement—is accurate and fair. The story, by global health and development correspondent Jason Beaubien, does not take a position on the law.

Most of the problems surround the lead anecdote, which takes up nearly a third of the more than 10-minute story. The police investigation of 17-year-old Cristina Quintanilla started on a tip of suspected abortion, but this is not central to the outcome of the case: She is charged and convicted of murdering a live baby born on her bathroom floor. The story is unable to explain how her 30-year sentence is an example of anti-abortion enforcement.

Beaubien defends the choice:

Our article was looking at the high-stakes involved when all abortions are illegal and medical staff are required to report women suspected of terminating their own pregnancies. Maybe Quintanilla did kill her son, maybe she didn't. I'm sure pro-life and pro-choice activists could debate that indefinitely. But what Quintanilla's case does illustrate is how in El Salvador it's possible that a natural miscarriage or a stillbirth could land a woman in jail for an extremely long time. Our story showed that and I stand by it.

But it is a huge leap from terminating a pregnancy to killing a newborn baby. The story casts strong doubt on the charges, but does not prove them wrong, discard them as irrelevant or—most critically—explain how her long sentence is linked to anti-abortion enforcement.

The need to overcome these hurdles suggests that Quintanilla's was not the best example to pick. Abortion rights activists in El Salvador include her case and others like it in their protests against a 1998 rewrite of the penal code that effectively banned all abortions, even when the mother's life is in danger. They also use it to oppose a 1999 constitutional amendment that declares that life begins at conception. But the use of Quintanilla's case by abortion rights activists does not automatically make it an abortion case.

Our article was looking at the high-stakes involved when all abortions are illegal and medical staff are required to report women suspected of terminating their own pregnancies.

Rather, there appears to be a much broader issue in El Salvador about the value of mothers' lives in general versus that of fetuses and newborn children, and about the fairness of enforcement. Abortion is just a piece of this bigger story. Infanticide is a separate piece. Quintanilla's case belongs in this second one. So, too, does the context of a history in El Salvador and much of Latin America of mothers, doctors and nurses smothering deformed newborn babies—and sometimes just unwanted ones. But the story wasn't given this broader conceptual frame, and the history wasn't reported.

I know this history because I was born in Colombia, my mother was a nurse in Panama and I have spent many years reporting in Latin America, including in El Salvador. This kind of infanticide—justified as "mercy killing"—is also common in many other parts of the world, and was once in the United States, too.

To his credit, Beaubien on air does interview the head of the National Forensic Institute who says that many poor women undertake crude ways to induce an abortion outside a hospital. But this is about abortion, not infanticide.

Still, I received no complaints after the NPR story ran Sept. 22. The complaints didn't start coming in until after a critical piece ran Oct. 3 on the anti-abortion advocacy site, LifeSite News. The LifeSite story itself makes many errors, but it correctly focused attention on the lead anecdote.

The NPR story begins to go awry in the introduction, read by host Robert Siegel. He opens by saying, "NPR has been looking at the way abortion is regulated around the world." He continues: "But in El Salvador, abortion is completely banned. A woman accused of terminating a pregnancy can face up to 50 years in prison."

Switching to careful language such as 'terminating a pregnancy' or getting 'the sentence overturned' is so artful as to seem misleading.

The disconnect between the woman's story and Salvadoran anti-abortion enforcement starts with this last sentence. As the critics noted in sending me an extract from the Salvadoran law reprinted in a Harvard study, the penalty for abortion is two to eight years in prison. Beaubien explained to me that it is only in a late-term abortion in which the "fetus is considered viable," or in the killing of a live baby shortly after it is born, that the charges escalate to murder and a possible 50-year jail sentence.

This should have been clarified in the story. To verbally attach the maximum murder sentence to the vague phrase "terminating a pregnancy," as the story's intro does, is technically correct but incomplete—and arguably misleading.

Nor does the story note in fairness that late-term abortions are legally problematic not just in El Salvador but also in many other countries, including in many jurisdictions in the United States. Quintanilla herself is quoted in the story as saying that she was seven months pregnant when she suffered a miscarriage. She said the baby was stillborn. What the story didn't report was that the coroner's office estimated in its official autopsy that the baby was 40 to 42 weeks old, making it full term. The story also didn't report that the baby was estimated by the autopsy to have been alive for two hours before the baby died.

Beaubien justified excluding this information from his story:

The forensic report said that it was unclear what caused the death of the baby. It also stated that the umbilical cord had been cut. And the report says that the baby breathed on its own for two hours. I asked them at Medicina Legal [the coroner] how they determined two hours. They said they dropped the lungs in a bucket of water and if they float then they must have had air in them at some point. They couldn't explain how they'd come up with two hours versus some other length of time. Again the issue of whether this baby took an initial breath or not, is not at odds with Quintanilla and her mother's account of what occurred. Her mother and the only one other witness say the baby wasn't moving when they entered the bathroom. Medicina Legal says they dropped the lungs in a bucket during the autopsy and the baby must have lived two hours.

I should add that as a journalist Quintanilla and her mother came across to both me and [video producer John Poole] as simple but sincere people. I found their accounts of the story credible. One important factor is that Quintanilla already had another child who she clearly adores. She was not a teen terrified of motherhood.

Beaubien, a veteran reporter who has done extraordinary coverage of public health and crisis situations around the world, thus had good reason to question the reliability of the coroner's report. But do those reasons justify his not sharing these contradicting details from us in his own report?

A similar question is raised when Beaubien reports on air: "After serving four years of her 30-year prison term, a young lawyer who tumbled across her case managed to get the sentence overturned. He argued successfully no one ever established the cause of her baby's death." This is true, but I had to listen four or five times before I caught that it was "the sentence" that was "overturned." Unstated is what happened to the murder conviction. Earlier, the appeals court had explicitly rejected changing it from "aggravated homicide" to "involuntary manslaughter," Beaubien told me. But he didn't report that either, explaining:

Again I was very cautious about what I said. I said as you note that her sentence was overturned.

After serving four years for murder she accepted a deal of three years for manslaughter and she was released immediately. That doesn't mean that she accepts that she killed her child, it means she accepted the deal the court put in front of her. Again even in these later appeals, no one ever presented evidence determining how this child died. Even in the late appeals, the forensic reports still say the cause of death was "indeterminada." The Supreme Court doesn't rule on whether she actually killed her son or not (as LifeSite implies). The court says simply that the prosecution didn't adequately prove the crime charged.

The suggestion in the ruling is that the charge was being dropped to manslaughter. But Beaubien noted to me that we don't know this for sure from the ruling, and if it was dropped, to what kind of manslaughter. Manslaughter can run the gamut from a lesser intentional murder charge to an accident. Infanticide of a recently born child is often included as a kind of manslaughter in which the mother's mental state due to post-partum depression is taken into account.

We can all sympathize that difficult choices have to be made to tell a complicated story in a limited amount of radio time. All these details could not be reported. But the omission of so many messy contradictions, particularly in the context of a late-term pregnancy that ended outside a hospital with a dead baby, are all the more reason to question using Quintanilla as the star example.

They said they dropped the lungs in a bucket of water and if they float then they must have had air in them at some point.

Switching to careful language such as "terminating a pregnancy," or saying that a sentence was "overturned" without saying what happened to the murder charge, is so artful as to seem misleading. Small wonder that listeners such as Ballester question whether the story was a hit job.

The headline writers for a digital version of the story and an accompanying video—yes, NPR is doing video stories—certainly seemed to miss the language nuances. "Why A Teenage Mom Was Jailed In El Salvador After A Stillbirth," is the headline for the web version. The title of the video version as displayed on YouTube is: "In El Salvador, A Miscarriage Leads to Jail." These headlines should be corrected immediately. Quintanilla might well have been innocent of the crime for which she was convicted, but we have only her word, and that of her mother, that a stillbirth or miscarriage actually happened. The story was not an investigation proving her innocence.

The opening credits of the video itself have a different title: "Christina's Story: Abortion in El Salvador." This headline suffers from the same disconnect as the story.

Finally, there is a matter of time. The birth episode transpired in 2004, and Quintanilla was convicted in 2005, after she had turned 18. The story does not mention the dates or address whether enforcement of Salvadoran laws has changed between then and now. The 9-year gap further weakens the relevance of Quintanilla's case.

I have no reason to believe that there was any intention by Beaubien or his editors on the health desk to deceive us by the confusion caused by using Quintanilla's story. Beaubien did prodigious reporting. As he told me:

As part of the reporting for this story I didn't just speak to Quintanilla and [anti-abortion] activists. I also interviewed a top prosecutor, Paula Patricia Velasquez, la fiscalia general junta. She's second in charge of El Salvador Attorney General's office. I spoke to the head of Medicina Legal, the forensic coroner who made it very clear that his job is to work for the prosecution to build cases against women accused of abortion. I spoke to prominent [anti-abortion] advocates including Catholic Bishop Romeo Tovar Estorga who was very involved in pushing for an absolute ban on abortion in El Salvador. I did in-person interviews with doctors, OB-GYNs and officials inside the national Ministry of Health.

Executive Editor Madhulika Sikka added:

We believe Jason's story and the other contributions in the series are accurate and provide a fair analysis of the issues. We stand behind them.

The story was thoroughly fact-checked prior to broadcast/publication and reviewed by multiple editors and producers, as is our standard with long-form stories like this.

We believe Jason's story and the other contributions in the series are accurate and provide a fair analysis of the issues. We stand behind them.

I agree that the facts as presented were correct. I also agree that the bulk of the story is fundamentally fair and valuable about abortion in El Salvador. But to me, this just underlines how the ambiguities of the main example and its disconnect to the abortion theme are such a shame.

But some of the above involves judgment calls by me. You may feel differently. Please read or listen to the story yourself and weigh in.

Editorial researcher Annie Johnson contributed to this article.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is the ombudsman for NPR. His column can be found on NPR.org here.