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Every 21 minutes in El Salvador, a girl falls pregnant. From that moment on, her future hangs in the balance because if her unborn baby dies, this country's abortion law can make her a murderer. Today at a court in San Salvador, journalists are gathering as one such mother prepares to learn her fate. Lawyer Dennis Munoz is here as her only support.

DENNIS MUNOZ, LAWYER (Translation): Where is he? With her in the cell?

This is his client - 22-year-old Elizabeth Santos. She's here after losing her 34 week old baby in a sudden premature birth at home.

DENNIS MUNOZ (Translation): Her mother took her to the only hospital because she was constantly bleeding and she was in a very bad state. And this is how Elizabeth found out, after being treated, that her newborn son had died.

Now she's accused of having an abortion - a serious criminal offence. If found guilty at this hearing, she could be jailed for 50 years. Everyone is ready to begin. But...

DENNIS MUNOZ (Translation): We have a situation..

..there's a delay. The state prosecutor hasn't turned up.

DENNIS MUNOZ (Translation): The trial won't take place because the state prosecutor is ill.

And her hearing falls apart.

DENNIS MUNOZ (Translation): We were well prepared but we can't do anything now, except wait. They came up with another tall tale? Another tall tale. Last time, her witness was missing. This time, she's ill.

Dennis says the prosecution has no evidence Elizabeth intentionally aborted her baby. Yet because her child is dead, they have changed her charge to homicide. Elizabeth has already spent a year in jail.

DENNIS MUNOZ (Translation): It's disappointing and frustrating to come to trial and not be told why they are suspending it without any proper justification. But unfortunately this is the criminal policy of El Salvador.

Elizabeth's problems began in hospital. When medical staff found her baby was dead - they reported her to the police. She says she is innocent and just wants to go home.

REPORTER: How do you feel being charged, first of all accused of abortion and now charged with homicide?

ELIZABETH (Translation): I just want to go to trial now and for all of this to be over. They're accusing me of something I didn't do. I want to know if I'm getting out, if I can go home and be with my son. That's what I need and for this nightmare to be over. That's all.

Handcuffed for the journey back to jail, Elizabeth is a young mother who will spend the rest of her life there - if the court decides she had an abortion. El Salvador is a nation built on strong religious roots. And this has shaped the law around childbirth. Life is defined as starting at conception - so the law here makes it illegal to have an abortion under any circumstances. One of only seven country's with such laws. It doesn't matter if you've been raped or your life is at risk from birth or whether you're incredibly young.

NURSE (Translation): Who's afraid, honestly? Let's raise our hands. Who's afraid of cleaning the umbilical stump? Well today you'll lose all fear because you'll learn how to do it.

All these expectant mothers come from poorer areas, they are aged between 13 and 18 years old. Rosita is 15.

ROSITA (Translation): If God is giving you the babies you have to carry on. That's it.

NURSE (Translation): What are we going to feed him? Milk. Right? That was very important.

Rosita believes pregnancy is a religious duty, but girls here are often victims of rape, incest and gang violence.

REPORTER: Are there many young girls your age getting pregnant?

ROSITA (Translation): Yes. Even at the age of twelve. Even when they are 12, they get pregnant.

They come here with no education about sex, pregnancy or their bodies and will be left to navigate difficult births at home alone.

DOCTOR JAIME PLEITEZ, OBSTETRICIAN (Translation): This is going to be a crucial moment for your children and your entire future will depend on it.

Their young bodies make these mums more likely to miscarry - a fact the law here doesn't take in to account.

DOCTOR JAIME PLEITEZ (Translation): Yes, it's very common. Very common. I mean, in reality, for such young women, it's... It's what's expected. There is overcrowding, violence, malnutrition, anaemia. Those are things to bear in mind. Their age alone is a risk factor for these girls.

And yet if one of these girls miscarries at home or their baby dies, doctors will report them to police on suspicions of abortion.

DOCTOR JAIME PLEITEZ (Translation): To avoid any issues, basically every case is reported.

This is because doctors interpret the law to believe that that too could be prosecuted if they don't.

REPORTER: What could happen to doctors if you didn't report?

DOCTOR JAIME PLEITEZ (Translation): It's a criminal offence, according to the law. The law considers these cases as intentional harm against a third party, the foetus, in this case.

REPORTER: And so do you think this law too strict? That possibly innocent women are going to jail for many years?

DOCTOR JAIME PLEITEZ (Translation): Yes, truly. I do think it's very restrictive. But that's the law, and we have to abide by it.

ROSITA (Translation): I know that, thanks to first of all God, and with the help of my mum and the help of my dad I am going to be all right.

While Rosita hopes for a smooth pregnancy, back in San Salvador, I've arranged to meet a mother who knows first-hand how this this this country's abortion law can devastate a young girl's life.

MARIA JOSEFINA (Translation): Here are some photos of Evelyn. That's her. That's at home after her First Communion. That's her and me.

Maria Josefina's 18-year-old daughter Evelyn is in jail - charged with aborting her baby.

REPORTER: What sort of a character is Evelyn?

MARIA JOSEFINA (Translation): She was a very happy girl. She really liked to study and always kept up with her homework. Here, she was 13.

She was reported to the police by the very people who saved her life, staff in the emergency ward of a public hospital. In this home video, Maria Josefina recounts the morning that changed their lives.

MARIA JOSEFINA (Translation): This is where we found her unconscious.

Dizzy and experiencing severe stomach cramps, Evelyn rushed to the bathroom. Her 34 week old baby was unexpectedly born into the latrine amongst a great deal of blood.

MARIA JOSEFINA (Translation): This is where she started to bleed profusely. I was frightened. I didn't know what to do. She wasn't talking. She wasn't responding.

Evelyn was rushed to hospital. But with no sign of her baby - doctors reported her to the police for abortion.

MARIA JOSEFINA (Translation): Ill as she was, from that night onwards there were always two policemen watching her. She was handcuffed in the same room where she was hospitalised.

Five days after arriving in hospital, Evelyn was charged with killing her baby and jailed. Months later she remains in prison waiting for her first hearing.

MARIA JOSEFINA (Translation): This is her room. These are Evelyn's stuffed toys. Here is her handbag.

All of this after she had been forced to have sex with a violent gang member.

MARIA JOSEFINA (Translation): Her notebooks... Sometimes I see her empty seat, her bed, her things, as a mother, I do not want her to be in that place. It really hurts me to see her there. These are her photographs.

REPORTER: So how are you feeling at the moment about the case?

MARIA JOSEFINA (Translation): Believe me it's not easy for me to talk about all this. It's like opening up a wound. It's something I can't explain it. It's something…it’s a pain I feel from being away from my daughter.

Now every Thursday, Maria Josefina rises at 4am to make the four-hour journey to see her daughter in prison. She takes her food, a little cash and a message of hope to keep Evelyn strong.

MARIA JOSEFINA (Translation): Psychologically, Evelyn is not well. She is traumatized by what happened because she doesn't understand how all this happened.

Maria Josefina's daughter is just one of 28 women currently incarcerated here - at Ilopango women's prison - on abortion charges. All of them say they are innocent. In this devout nation, such is the stigma attached to these abortion cases, lawyer Dennis Munoz is virtually alone in defending them. Like all of the cases he takes on - he's confidant Maria Josefina's daughter is telling the truth.

DENNIS MUNOZ (Translation): Her newly born child, unfortunately, died in the bathroom and they accuse her of provoking the abortion when actually, the autopsy shows that the cause of death is unknown.

It's here I learn why the law is causing so much heartache for so many families. Dennis tells me that here there is no legal distinction between an unintentional miscarriage and intentional abortion.

DENNIS MUNOZ (Translation): That's the point. These obstetric complications are spontaneous or involuntary but the justice system in El Salvador interprets a spontaneous event as an intentional event.

So women who miscarry can automatically be presumed guilty and reported for abortion. Not only have they lost their baby - they are then charged with a criminal offence. Even though he says by law they should be protected by patient confidentiality.

DENNIS MUNOZ (Translation): This is like a witch hunt against women, in a very medieval style. They look for ways to convict and they often win.

Now there's a push among the nation's top lawmakers to increase the sentence for women convicted of abortion.

MAYTEE ESCALANTE (Translation): The youngest member of parliament in El Salvador.

REPORTER: How old are you?

MAYTEE IRAHETA ESCALANTE, ARENA PARTY POLITICIAN (Translation): 28. But I started when I was 26.

That push is taking place here at the National Parliament by pro-life politicians like Maytee Escalante. She wants the sentence for abortion to be lifted to 50 years to equal the jail term for homicide.

MAYTEE IRAHETA ESCALANTE (Translation): If you recognise life from the moment of conception then you are saying that anyone who harms that life has to be convicted.

When in power, Maytee's conservative Arena Party strengthened the abortion law to what it is today.

REPORTER: We've heard that many young women who just have a late-term miscarriage, are accused of abortion and then are imprisoned for maybe 30 years because they are accused of murder. Is that fair?

MAYTEE IRAHETA ESCALANTE (Translation): No one in El Salvador can be prosecuted without due process. I insist. The prosecution has to prove whether the abortion was induced, whether the woman consciously decided to kill the being in her womb.

REPORTER: We've met families and women who are now in prison. They say they're innocent.

MAYTEE IRAHETA ESCALANTE (Translation): There are dozens of women who have health issues with polycystic ovarian syndrome or ectopic pregnancies, and they lose their babies, and they love their babies and they lose it. Those women aren't prosecuted. That's a medical issue which is the responsibility of doctors. I would have to ask how they deal with them so they don't fall within the law that makes abortion a crime.

As Maytee suggests, after a woman is charged, it is up to forensic experts to convince the court that she did abort her baby. But we've heard this "evidence” can be extremely flawed.

MARIA TERESA (Translation): I am free because the judge ruled that I was not guilty in a review of my sentence. I was condemned for 40 years. But thanks to God I'm free.

Maria Teresa suffered an unexpected birth at home. In severe pain, she rushed to the toilet where she gave birth to a premature baby.

MARIA TERESA (Translation): The worst thing was we have a pit latrine in my house so they were saying that I threw the baby there. That was their evidence.

It can't be established whether her baby was stillborn or died moments after birth. But she was convicted of murder because state forensic teams used a procedure known as the lung float test to insist her baby was born alive.

DENNIS MUNOZ (Translation): The test is very old fashioned. It's prehistoric. They put part of the lung, or part of the lung tissue, into a container of water. If it floats and expels bubbles then, to them, this means that the baby breathed. So, it was alive. And if it was alive, they assume she killed it.

This test is widely discredited. An independent US review of Maria Teresa's case - concluded her child could just as easily have been born dead, dying naturally through no fault of her mother.

DENNIS MUNOZ (Translation): I always used to think that in El Salvador only guilty people were imprisoned. But that's not the case. Innocent people are imprisoned. These women are an example of that.

MARIA TERESA (Translation): At one point I asked God, "Why did you bring me into this world?” "Why was I born?” I asked. “If my life has been full of failures, when will this all be over?” But I fought on.

If her appeal hadn't been successful, Maria Teresa would still be locked up here inside the main women's prison. It's where Maria Josefina's daughter Evelyn is being kept behind bars waiting for her case to begin. Maria Josefina knows her daughter's entire life now hangs in the balance.

MARIA JOSEFINA (Translation): Right now, I don't know what the future holds. What I do know is that we put our hope in God, that one day, God willing, all of this will be over. I thank you, Most Holy Father, because I know that You never forsake us. I also commit my daughter into your hands so you can help her, Most Holy Mother.

While their faith is in God it will be judges who decide Evelyn's future.

MARIA JOSEFINA (Translation): I know she is innocent. But I know I have to wait and be patient.

It's a long fight ahead but it's only by challenging the charges that El Salvador might avoid imposing years of further injustice on women already traumatised. Elizabeth was found not guilty of all charges and freed. The state has appealed to reopen a homicide case against Maria Teresa. Maria Josefina's daughter is awaiting her preliminary hearing. She has been in prison without trial since April.