GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemala said this week that it would scrap an official permission given to Planned Parenthood, the international reproductive rights organization, to operate in the anti-abortion nation, prompting the resignation of a high-ranking official.
The country’s president, vice president, political parties and Christian evangelical churches moved quickly to condemn a decree issued in early November that allowed Planned Parenthood Global, a division of the U.S. based group, to establish itself as a legally registered group in the Central American country.
The official who issued the permit - Minister of the Interior Oliverio García - promptly resigned, and the decree was repealed.
President Alejandro Giammattei was taken by surprise by the decree and had no prior knowledge of or participation in it, according to presidential press secretary Francis Masek.
“It was not until the publication of the NGO’s authorization that the president became aware of the error of authorizing an organization whose social aim is to attack the right to life, which, among other things, the state of Guatemala must safeguard,” Masek told VICE News in a written message.
The third article of Guatemala’s constitution says that the state “safeguards and protects human life from conception.” Abortion is illegal in all cases except when a pregnancy is life-threatening, and there is extremely little public support for the legalization of abortion.
“Guatemala is a very conservative country, and a religious country,” said Ada Valenzuela, director of the National Union of Guatemalan Women.
In the United States, Planned Parenthood is the largest provider of reproductive health services, including abortion. Outside of the U.S., Planned Parenthood Global does not provide direct health services, abortions, or sex education. The organization partners with groups in Africa and Latin America.
Planned Parenthood Global is registered as a local NGO in several countries and looked to do the same in Guatemala to facilitate local support, but is not required to do so. They declined to comment when contacted by VICE News.
The hint of abortion or progress on reproductive rights is immediately quashed in conservative Guatemala, according to leaders of women’s rights groups.
“It is impossible to even have a debate about abortion here,” Valenzuela told VICE News.
Around the world, women and girls have clandestine abortions when they have no legal way of terminating unwanted pregnancies. Some 45 percent of all abortions worldwide are unsafe, and between 4.7 and 13.2 percent of maternal deaths can be attributed to unsafe terminations, according to the World Health Organization.
In Guatemala, those with the means can pay private doctors willing to perform clandestine abortions with a relatively high standard of medical care, said Valenzuela. Poor women often feel forced to resort to unsupervised methods that pose a greater risk to their health and lives, such as taking high doses of pharmaceutical drugs whose side effects include miscarriage.
Valenzuela also sees hypocrisy in the government’s defense of the rights of the unborn in light of what she sees as its failure to protect children.
“Once a girl is born, that’s it for rights. Young girls are made to carry to term pregnancies that result from rape and incest,” she said.
Between January and July this year, there were 2,289 pregnancies among Guatemalan girls between the ages of 10 and 14, according to CIPRODENI, a non-profit observatory for the rights of children. Between January and September, 73 girls were killed and nearly 3,000 were subject to medical exams for sexual assault, according to the group.
Guatemala’s authorization of Planned Parenthood Global, which has since been retracted, did not come out of nowhere. The decree was published Monday but is dated October 7, and an office representing Guatemala’s legal interests signed off on it before that.
The October 7 date did not go unnoticed. Government critics have been speculating that the sudden uproar was to divert attention from recent government corruption scandals as well as protests alleging government misuse of public funds destined to manage the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is a smokescreen,” said Valenzuela. “They made it public to change the subject.”
Many women’s and feminist groups in Guatemala are openly pro-choice, fully supporting legal abortion. But there is so little support for legalization that they focus their campaigns on other key legal exceptions.
Sandra Morán did just that during her term in congress. A longtime feminist activist and the first openly gay lawmaker in Guatemalan history, she spearheaded a bill proposal that would have, among other things, permitted abortion as an option for girls under the age of 14 pregnant as a result of rape and incest. The proposed bill was nixed before it even made it to the floor.
“We are a country with a very religious base,” Morán told VICE News. “’No to abortion’ is like dogma.”
Predominant Catholic, Guatemala has always been extremely socially conservative. But the fervent anti-abortion movement here has been bolstered by U.S. support for pentecostal and other evangelical churches, particularly under a military dictatorship in the 1980s, said Morán.
As part of its counterinsurgency efforts in Central America during the Cold War, the U.S. funded and exported non-Catholic Christian churches in the region to counter the growing popularity of Catholic liberation theology that focused on social justice and human rights, sometimes with ties to revolutionary guerrilla movements.
“The other big push has been in the past decade,” said Morán.
The global involvement of conservative U.S. Christian groups funding campaigns against abortion, marriage equality and transgender rights is well documented, including in a new global investigation published last week by Open Democracy.
There is little chance Guatemala will pass laws to legalize abortion, recognize marriage equality or enact transgender rights anytime soon, said Morán. But she does have hope in shifting views she sees among younger generations, particularly when it comes to the right to science-based sex education in schools.
“I think there is more progress among youth,” she said. “There is more openness.”
Morán sees the repeal of Planned Parenthood Global’s authorization to exist as a legally registered Guatemalan NGO as a dangerous precedent in a country with an already fragile democracy and rule of law.
The repeal does not affect the ability of Planned Parenthood Global, as a U.S-based non-profit, to continue providing support to local Guatemalan groups. But Morán is worried the move signals a willingness to revoke the legal status of Guatemalan organizations that work on political and social issues not in alignment with the government’s interests.
“They are opening the door to shutting down other organizations they do not agree with.”