A Colombian mother’s pursuit of justice for her daughter who died from a botched abortion

In 2014, Ányela Viviana Benítez died after undergoing an incomplete abortion. Francie Mera says social stigma and medical negligence led to her daughter’s death

Francie Elena Mera busca justicia para su hija Ányela
Francie Mera in Cali, Colombia.Lyann Cuartas
Daniela Díaz

Staring into the distance, Francie Mera vividly recounts her final week with her daughter Ányela. Her voice breaks occasionally, a lump lodged in her throat. Reliving each moment with clarity, it’s hard to believe that nine years have passed since that tragedy. For almost a decade, this resolute Colombian woman has relentlessly pursued justice for her daughter, whose life prematurely ended at 19 due to complications from an incomplete abortion. As Ányela endured excruciating pain, she sought medical assistance from two hospitals, only to face indifference and cruel stigmatization instead. It was hard for Francie to talk about Ányela without crying. During our interview, she finally opened up the family albums containing her daughters’ childhood memories, which she hadn’t looked at in years.

In mid-2014, her daughter, who was studying in Popayán, made the three-hour trip to visit Francie in Cali (western Colombia). They planned to spend Anyelita’s birthday together, as Francie fondly refers to her. The celebration took a somber turn when her daughter fell ill on July 27. Francie has vividly etched in her memory everything that happened for the next 10 days until her daughter tragically passed away on August 5.

Ányela started experiencing abdominal pain and a severe migraine that progressively worsened. A few days later, she and her boyfriend went to Susana López Hospital in Popayán seeking care. Francie says they experienced consistently poor treatment throughout the week. During one visit, a social worker informed them that taking Cytotec pills for an abortion as Ányela had done was illegal and could land them in jail. The couple was scared, uncertain about Colombia’s laws at the time. However, the Constitutional Court had decriminalized abortion in 2006, allowing it under three specific circumstances: fetal malformation, pregnancy resulting from sexual violence, and risks to the life or health (physical, mental, or social) of the pregnant woman.

Francie Mena with a family photo album.
Francie Mena with a family photo album.Lyann Cuartas

They were sent home without anything to relieve the pain. As the symptoms persisted, they returned 24 hours later. Two more days passed amid exams and vague diagnoses, while Ányela experienced high fevers and other signs of infection. On August 3, a doctor finally performed a curettage (surgical removal of the lining and contents of the uterus) after finding that the Cytotec-induced abortion had been incomplete.

Laura Gil, a gynecologist and co-founder of the Colombian chapter of Global Doctors for Choice, says Ányela’s case demonstrates several instances of negligence, from the medical staff who provided her care that week, to the government entities that failed to provide clear information for Ányela regarding voluntary termination of pregnancy. “Timely information could have saved the young woman’s life. However, they allowed her condition to worsen. Performing an aspiration procedure, which is recommended by the WHO over curettage, could have prevented the need for uterus removal and the subsequent multisystem organ failure,” said the gynecologist.

His mother shares the same view. Based on her medical records, Ányela’s direct cause of death was respiratory arrest. Francie explains that before her final surgery — the hysterectomy — her daughter repeatedly said she was having difficulty breathing. She says the priority should have been saving her daughter’s life, rather than passing judgment.

The Benítez Mera family was devastated by the loss of Ányela. Francie had high hopes for her eldest daughter, who was going to study marine biology in college. Ányela had promised to take her mother to see the ocean and the dolphins once she graduated. Ányela’s death caused Francie’s life to unravel. She fell victim to a scam, her marriage ended, and she was left alone with her youngest daughter, Sarita, who kept asking about her older sister.

A photo of Ányela at her mother's house in Cali, Colombia.
A photo of Ányela at her mother's house in Cali, Colombia.Lyann Cuartas

The fight for justice

Two years later, Francie’s sadness turned into a zeal for justice. She decided to sue the La Estancia Clinic and the Susana López Hospital for medical negligence and failure to provide adequate treatment. Her hope is that no other woman will experience the same tragedy as her daughter. However, to her surprise, mistreatment and stigma surrounding voluntary termination of pregnancy persisted during the legal process. The judge said she was a negligent mother and treated her hostilely, forcing her to repeatedly relive her daughter’s painful death. “These years have been a constant reminder of the injustices that poor Anyelita had to endure,” said Francie.

The revictimization reached its peak when on August 30, 2023, after seven years of legal battles, the sixth administrative court of Popayán ruled on the case. Francie’s lawsuit against the two clinics was denied, and the court blamed Ányela for her own death. Francie’s lawyer said, “Among other injustices, the judge overlooked the fact that she spent 10 hours in top priority status waiting in the emergency room,” which indicates immediate medical attention is needed.

The ruling brought back painful memories for Francie, but she wasted no time and filed an appeal. If the court accepts the appeal, it could take another two to three years for the case to be heard. “I will go as far as I have to,” Francie said with conviction. The pursuit of justice for her daughter’s suffering is what keeps this mother going.

Laura Gil clearly states that Ányela is not to blame for her death. “She diligently sought assistance, but she instead faced judgment, rejection and inadequate information regarding Ministry of Health guidelines on voluntary termination of pregnancy. It’s evident that she did not receive the same treatment as someone having a miscarriage.”

Francie Mera with a photo of her daughter, Ányela; September 25, 2023.
Francie Mera with a photo of her daughter, Ányela; September 25, 2023.Lyann Cuartas

Ana González, a medical doctor with a PhD in bioethics and one of the pioneers of the Causa Justa movement, which has successfully advocated for Colombia’s decriminalization of abortion, shares the same perspective. “It is regrettable that a woman in Colombia lost her life due to negligence. It was abuse — gender and obstetric violence.” According to González, due to Constitutional Court ruling C-055 in 2022, which decriminalizes abortion before 24 weeks in any situation, cases like Ányela’s are now handled differently. “The ruling has had significant impacts. Women are now seeking more information rather than legal advice, and the health system now appears willing to offer these services. We are committed to advocating for the implementation of these regulatory frameworks. This case vividly demonstrates the detrimental impact on families and women of non-compliance with regulations, and should not occur in a country where abortion is completely decriminalized.”

September 28 is International Safe Abortion Day, a day of action for decriminalization of abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean. Large marches are planned in the region’s major cities, with thousands of women demanding their right to make decisions in dignified conditions. However, society still faces the barriers and lingering prejudices experienced firsthand by Francie Mera.

González says the women’s rights movement in Latin America is growing stronger and is no longer a lonely struggle. In 2014, Francie was unaware of the September 28 event and had few thoughts about women’s reproductive rights. However, Ányela’s tragic experience transformed her, and she refuses to accept the failures of the clinics, doctors and legal system. Giving up is not in her plans.

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