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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Gender Discrimination and International Human Rights with Juliet Sorensen, JD

The guest on this episode of Breaking Boundaries is Juliet Sorensen, a Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law and the director and founder of the Northwestern Access to Health Project. Sorenson is an international human rights champion whose work is changing the lives of women and girls around the world.  

Gender justice is a foundation of all the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs). It figures as SDG #5, Gender Equality, but it is also a critical part of SDG, from health to poverty, to education, to inequality, to climate action, because sustainability is impossible without gender justice. Sorensen talks about SDG #5, her career and her recent work with the Clooney Foundation for Justice to bring international attention to women in El Salvador who were convicted and imprisoned after suffering an obstetric emergency related to pregnancy.

Juliet Sorensen

The two trials that I monitored for the Clooney Foundation, those are far from the only instances of wrongful prosecutions of women who have undergone obstetric emergencies in El Salvador. Since the Inter-American Court's ruling came down last month, my colleagues at the Clooney Foundation and the ABA and I were pleased, relieved and hopeful by the fact that El Salvador has actually released three other women who have been identified as wrongfully convicted under similar circumstances. Hopefully, there's more to come.”

-- Juliet Sorensen

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Read the transcript of this show below

Annelise Riles [00:00:03] Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I'm Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffett Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertise in geography, culture and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. This winter, we're focusing our attention on sustainable development goal number 16, which is peace, justice and strong institutions and a critical component of peace and justice, of course, is ending gender discrimination and gender violence. Gender justice is actually a foundation of all the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. It figures as SDG number five, gender equality, but it's also integral to how we think about health, poverty, education, inequality and climate action and, of course, peace, justice and strong institutions. Today's guest is an international human rights champion whose work is changing the lives of women and girls around the world. Juliet Sorensen is clinical professor of law at Northwestern's Pritzker School of Law and founder of the Northwestern Access to Health Project from Africa to the Middle East to Latin America to prisons in Chicago. Juliet sheds an unflinching light on laws and institutions that stand in the way of gender justice, and she lends an empathetic hand to victims, survivors and activists working for change. Right now, she's doing some really exciting work in El Salvador, defending women who've been convicted in prison for seeking to end a pregnancy. She's here to tell us about that and much more. Welcome to the show, Juliet. So happy you're here. 

Juliet Sorensen [00:01:54] Thank you s o much for having me, Annalise. It's an honor to be here. 

Annelise Riles [00:01:57] You've been deeply involved in human rights since your early 20s as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. Can you tell me a little bit about where your passion for human rights comes from and how it fits into your own story? 

Juliet Sorensen [00:02:11] I can tell you a little bit about my personal story and background, which I do think has played a role in the work that I have done and try to do today. Really, it's thanks to both of my parents. My mother spent her career at the United Nations working with  both Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan, the two secretaries general. My father was a lawyer. He was the special counsel to John F. Kennedy and dedicated his life to what I try to do and like to think of as law in the service of human needs. Those human needs have really been a common thread and motivated me since I was a maternal and child health Peace Corps volunteer in rural Morocco, all of those years ago between college and law school. 

Annelise Riles [00:02:56] So Juliet, you're really a boundary breaker in so many ways. I was just so excited to have you on the podcast because you work across all kinds of boundaries. You work both inside and outside the university, across disciplines and professions, whether it's law journalism, the medical profession, business and of course, across language groups, too. And this isn't the traditional route for a law professor, right? So what do you do and what's fun about it? From your point of view.

Juliet Sorensen [00:03:26] It is fun, it's fun, it's fulfilling, and I'm very lucky to be able to do it. I seek to work across boundaries, across disciplines and across institutions because I truly believe that in the sort of social impact work that I do as a lawyer or in other forms of social impact, the whole is really greater than the sum of its parts in my experience. Silos mostly only exist in the eye of the beholder, and they're pretty easy to break down. So I try to choose projects or work or effort at the intersection of need and opportunity. The common thread, as I said, is the service of human needs. So, so need is very great, right? Need the need is great here in our backyard. The need is great on the other side of the world. What I look for is the opportunity to have an impact. It's that intersection of need and opportunity on that sweet spot that I try to consider in various endeavors, and I try to bear that in mind. Of course, in my capacity as an educator for my students doing that work as well. I'm not interested in work that that simply reinvent the wheel, that regurgitates information that has already been out there or a process that's already been done. I really do believe that Northwestern, as a as a global citizen, has the capacity to leverage all of its extraordinary talent and resources. As I said, at the intersection of need, an opportunity to have a meaningful social impact. 

Annelise Riles [00:04:58] So when it comes to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, you've been a real leader on our campus, and you gave a fantastic lecture at Buffett recently about the UN SDGs explaining what they are and how they work. Tell us, how did the UN SDGs fit into your work and your framework? 

Juliet Sorensen [00:05:17] I find the SDGs to be a remarkable framework for human rights, for global health and for that matter, for development capacity and building human capacity from an economic development perspective, the SDGs, which of course, were built upon the so-called MDGs, the Millennium Development Goals. Bear in mind not only the fact that much of the world continues to battle persistent poverty, want need hunger, but that there are also socio cultural forces at work that prevent human beings from and human societies from living up to their fullest potential. So the SDGs also reflect economic and social rights. They reflect anti-discrimination priorities. To me, they are a tremendous framework in which to ground my work. 

Annelise Riles [00:06:22] So most recently, working with the Clooney Foundation for Justice, you've been really courageously facing a kind of state violence experienced by so many women in El Salvador. Over the past 20 years, the Salvadorian courts have convicted and imprisoned dozens of women for up to 40 years simply because they had an abortion or suffered a miscarriage. Why is this happening, Juliet? 

Juliet Sorensen [00:06:50] El Salvador, Annelise, has completely and totally abolished and criminalized any form of abortion. It is not alone in this way, it has company in Latin America this phenomenon that we are seeing in El Salvador, of wrongful prosecutions of women who have experienced obstetric emergencies, who are then being charged with aggravated homicide. And to be clear, an abortion is actually treated as an aggravated homicide in El Salvador. These wrongful convictions, resulting in sentences of decades, has resulted in extraordinary miscarriages of justice, which also, by the way, reveal deeper social inequities within the society. Because the women who are being prosecuted and wrongfully convicted are poor women in rural areas who may not have the means to seek reproductive health care from a private health care provider. 

Annelise Riles [00:07:58] So from what I understand, women in many of these cases are also subjected to cruel and inhumane or degrading treatment, such as handcuffing to hospital beds during or after labor, or a lack of necessary medical care while they're being imprisoned. Is that correct? 

Juliet Sorensen [00:08:15] Is correct when we examine the human rights violations that are occurring in these cases? Not only do we see these wrongful convictions, not only do we see the class divide in systemic discrimination on the basis of class that I mentioned a moment ago, we take one step back. We see obviously discrimination on the basis of gender. Since these cases are being brought only against one gender. But finally, yes, we see extremely troubling what we in the United States would call due process violations. Women being denied access to counsel. We see a range of trial rates being routinely disregarded, and yes, we see frankly shocking conditions of pretrial custodial detention and again, bearing in mind these are women who have gone through obstetric emergencies, who are in the hospital, who are at risk of hemorrhaging, regain consciousness and find themselves shackled to their bed. 

Annelise Riles [00:09:15] So what do international human rights treaties say about these practices? What violations of international human rights law do these practices constitute from your point of view? 

Juliet Sorensen [00:09:29] So really a range of international laws and covenants Annaliese, including importantly, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, both of which El Salvador has signed and ratified. The question, of course, then becomes: What can a mechanism of enforcement be? And I was recently involved in one of these cases that did go to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. 

Annelise Riles [00:10:00] So I understand you wrote an amicus brief. Is that correct? 

Juliet Sorensen [00:10:03] Yes. So that came about because as you mentioned, I had been asked by the Clooney Foundation for Justice Trial Watch initiative to conduct an expert analysis of two of these cases. The trial watch initiative, as the name implies, involves court watchers court monitors who identify cases around the world where there are significant human rights at risk of being violated. They then essentially simultaneously memorialize the trial proceedings. The court watchers then turn over their documentation with, of course, the, you know, the case file the court record to the experts who then conduct an analysis and expert analysis regarding the human rights issue. So in collaboration with the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights, I did two expert reports for the Clooney Foundation related to women who had been wrongfully prosecuted, charged with aggravated homicide and when they had in fact experienced obstetric emergencies. Following the publication of those reports, I was contacted by the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Center for Reproductive Rights. Your listeners may know is an extraordinary reproductive rights nonprofit based in New York that really does work in the United States and all over the world related to access to reproductive health services for women. And Sierra was representing the family, the surviving family members of a woman who had been convicted wrongfully of aggravated homicide and had tragically died in prison following her being sentenced to 30 years there. She had actually died in prison of cancer. This family was seeking redress and had gone through this long, slow process through the Inter-American Commission onto the Inter-American Court in the case finally called Manuela and Family vs. El Salvador. Manuela is a pseudonym. The case was finally heard by the Inter-American Court last year. And so in 2020,  asked if I would be willing to author an amicus brief in the case. 

Annelise Riles [00:12:13] And can you tell us a little bit about what was the argument of your brief and anything about what happened in the case in the end? 

Juliet Sorensen [00:12:22] Yes, I can. Because late last year, the Inter-American Court issued its ruling. So this brief also I co-counseled with the outstanding lawyers at the Clooney Foundation, as well as my clinical fellow here at Northwestern Alex Tertzakian. And we always pay homage to our students at Northwestern because they're the best we worked with in an outstanding third year law student on the brief as well, Meredith Heim. So yes, so our brief laid out first a couple of documented facts, which is the strong correlation between high levels of maternal morbidity and mortality and restrictive anti-abortion and anti reproductive health laws. There is a straight line to be drawn between a ban on abortion and maternal death, which manuelo was at risk of as was, as were these other women in these other cases. We then walked through the range of international legal obligations that El Salvador had breached in its investigation of Manuela, again representative of many other women, in disregarding evidence of her obstetric emergency. In what appeared to be impermissibly shifting the burden of proof, your US lawyer. Listeners will know, of course, that the burden of proof rests at all times with the prosecution. It should never be on the defendant to prove her innocence. So requiring Manuela to present evidence herself of her medical condition, the lack of access that her attorneys had to the prosecution's records of her pretrial detention. But we also looked at societal and legal requirements that brought this about among the range of El Salvador and anti-abortion laws. El Salvador actually criminalizes under an accomplice liability theory family members and health care providers who can be charged with facility a woman getting an abortion, so this creates an atmosphere of fear, distrust. It makes it all too tempting for a health care provider to check the box on the required form that this person, you know, appeared to have undergone an abortion at home, for example. And so we try to get at the the ramifications of this complete abortion ban as well as as I said before, the international human rights violation. So that's sort of a high level summary of what was in the brief. The upshot was the first of its kind ruling that was issued by the Inter-American Court, which El Salvador is bound to comply. So I have to start by saying that it did not order El Salvador to decriminalize abortion. That, of course, would have been the Hail Mary and the ultimate victory for Mandela's family. However, it did find that the state had violated these human rights, that it had violated Mandela's due process rights, that she was representative of women who had been systematically discriminated against. It ordered El Salvador to pay reparations to Mandela's family, and it also ordered El Salvador, importantly, to take measures to prevent the wrongful prosecution of women who had experienced obstetric emergencies in the future. I look forward to seeing how El Salvador implements that. Finally, the court ordered El Salvador to systematically implement a curriculum, a public health curriculum related to reproductive health and sexuality, family planning, contraception and reproductive health services, which again is really intimately tied into that link. I described at the start of this conversation about the link between women's health and access to reproductive health care. 

Annelise Riles [00:16:15] And so has El Salvador taken any steps to implement this ruling? Did the family get some sort of compensation? Is there any kind of curriculum in the works? 

Juliet Sorensen [00:16:25] Yeah, it's a great question. So the ruling was issued last month in the immediate aftermath. El Salvador had no public comment on the ruling. I do want to add one other important development, however, because the case of Manuela, who, as I said, is deceased, the two trials that I monitored for the Clooney Foundation, those are far from the only instances of wrongful prosecutions of women who have undergone obstetric emergencies in El Salvador since the Inter-American Court's ruling came down last month. My colleagues at the Clooney Foundation and the ABA and I were pleased, relieved and hopeful by the fact that El Salvador has actually released three other women who have been identified as wrongfully convicted under similar circumstances. Hopefully, there's more to come. 

Annelise Riles [00:17:14] So when you talk to Juliet about a law that extends liability to anyone who aids and abets a woman in taking care of her own health, it does bring to mind certain parallels to things happening in the United States right now. And so I'm wondering if you think there's any room for an international human rights strategy in thinking about some of the laws that are on the books now in the United States? 

Juliet Sorensen [00:17:40] There can be, and there should be, Annelise. As you know, many U.S. judges are less interested in international law than our international treaty obligations would have them be. But as a matter of fact, you know, I'm sure that your listeners are familiar with the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health Organization case, the Mississippi case, which is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Last fall, I partnered with the Northwestern Supreme Court practicum here at our law school's Bloom Legal Clinic, and we counseled an amicus brief on behalf of Human Rights Watch, the Global Justice Center and Amnesty International, making very similar arguments under a different set of facts, of course, which is to say the Mississippi abortion law to the U.S. Supreme Court about the United States treaty obligations, our obligations under international law and also the close connection between women's health, maternal mortality and access to reproductive health services. The amicus brief is on file. The ruling has yet to come down. I am, what can I say, keeping my hopes high, but my expectations low. 

Annelise Riles [00:18:53] So coming back to El Salvador? Can you tell us a little bit about how this issue is perceived in civil society? Do you find much support among, say, social actors in El Salvador for the work that you're doing there? 

Juliet Sorensen [00:19:05] There are some extraordinary and courageous civil society organizations in El Salvador that are focused on women's reproductive rights. They've been very involved in championing these cases from the get go. You know, El Salvador's atmosphere for freedom of association is more restrictive than here in the United States, so I'm full of admiration for these grassroots NGOs and their commitment to women's health and justice. 

Annelise Riles [00:19:36] And so I'm curious, how do you think about the role of litigation in cases like this, whether it's international human rights law or domestic law versus other kinds of social movements or other kinds of political solutions in achieving justice for women in El Salvador or elsewhere. 

Juliet Sorensen [00:19:56] That's an ongoing conversation I have with my health and human rights students, actually, and we were discussing it just the other night. I believe that litigation is necessary, but insufficient litigation is, by definition, reactive, even if it aims to be strategic, even if it aims to be holistic. It is bound by the facts and circumstances at hand. That said, I do believe that strategic litigation can have an effect not only in the outcome of the case at hand, but in foreign policy, and then have a ripple effect around the world. 

Annelise Riles [00:20:34] So what can ordinary citizens do, Juliet? I mean, I can imagine some of our listeners listening to you may be thinking, Oh my goodness, I wish there was something I could do, but I don't know what to do. So what can ordinary people do about these issues? 

Juliet Sorensen [00:20:50] You can support those outstanding civil society organizations, and if you're interested in learning about the Center for Reproductive Rights and the work that they do, as I said at home and around the world, that's a fantastic place to start. Another suggestion I have and it sounds old fashioned, but I stand by it 100 percent, right? Your member of Congress, they are here to serve you. They are obligated to listen to you. Make your views heard on access to health and justice for women and other issues that you care about. You are their constituents. 

Annelise Riles [00:21:25] What a great point. Absolutely well said, Juliet. It's such an honor to speak with you. As you know, I admire you deeply and I just am so grateful that you're here doing this wonderful work at Northwestern. I want to end by asking the question that I asked all of our guests, which is, as you think about the near future, what are you most worried about and what are you most hopeful for? 

Juliet Sorensen [00:21:53] I'm most worried that the concept of human rights is far from accepted or practiced around the world. The concept that the rights of human beings come not from the largesse of the state at its discretion, but from the mere fact that human beings are there, that we exist. And it is troubling to me that this continues to be a struggle along with the common enemies of humanity, tyranny, poverty, disease, war. What makes me most hopeful, Annalise are my students and our children, they are immersed and fully educated as to climate change, the great struggle of our time, ready to take it on in any way they can. Ready to be global citizens and activists. And so when I think about what the future holds and I think of them, I feel hopeful. 

Annelise Riles [00:23:02] Well, Juliet, you are an inspiration. You're such a change maker. I only wish I could be a law student again to be in your classroom, but I'm so grateful that we had this time together. Thank you so much for being here. 

Juliet Sorensen [00:23:15] Thank you, Annalise, and thank you for all that you too are doing. 

Annelise Riles [00:23:21] For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at