Honduras’ draconian abortion laws will remain in place for the foreseeable future after feminist groups failed to convince lawmakers to soften the country’s complete ban on abortion Thursday.
Honduras is one of a handful of countries worldwide that criminalize abortion in all circumstances, and any woman who undergoes one may be imprisoned for up to six years. But for the past two years, Honduran lawmakers have been completely overhauling the country’s penal code for the first time in more than three decades, explained Elida Caballero Cabrera, advocacy adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean for the Center for Reproductive Rights. United Nations experts and several feminist groups within Honduras, where about 90 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, believed they had a chance to rewrite the abortion ban, too.
They urged a select commission of lawmakers charged with creating a recommended list of penal code changes to suggest loosening Honduras’ abortion ban to allow women to seek abortions in cases of rape, incest, and unviable pregnancies, or for health reasons.
“We saw a big opportunity here because basically every single article was changed in some way [except] this one,” Caballero Cabrera said. For a few days this week, it seemed like their efforts were paying off, she said, as lawmakers seemed to lean toward allowing abortion in medical emergencies. But then powerful anti-abortion religious groups got involved.
On Thursday, the commission declined to recommend that Honduras’ congress change the ban at all.
“It was very frustrating,” Caballero Cabrera said. “Honduras is a very, very dangerous place for women… It’s a country that lives in extreme poverty and in constant war and lack of security. And it’s very sad to see that the decisions made by the government, and the people who should be promoting all this access to justice for these women, are the ones who are putting so many barriers for them.”
Violence against Honduran women has skyrocketed in recent years. Between 2005 and 2013, the number of violent female deaths rose by more than 260 percent, indicating that a woman was murdered about every 14 hours, according to a report submitted to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women. Femicide — the murder of a woman due to her gender — is the second-leading cause of death for Honduran women of reproductive age, U.N. Women found in 2013.
Sexual assault is also a widespread problem in Honduras. A report of sexual assault was filed an average of every three hours in 2013, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. If a Honduran woman becomes pregnant through sexual assault, she has no legal choice but to have her rapist’s baby. Even emergency contraception is outlawed.
Moreover, very few of these crimes end in conviction. In fact, in 2014, the United Nations reported that 95 percent of instances of sexual violence and femicides are never even investigated.
“Denying access to such health services violates [women] and girls’ rights to be protected against gender-based discrimination and violence as well as torture and ill-treatment,” several United Nations experts said in an April statement. “And we deeply regret the lack of public policies for the promotion and protection of women’s sexual and reproductive rights, particularly in terms of family planning.”
The consequences of the National Congress of Honduras’ inaction may also ripple beyond the country’s borders, Caballero Cabrera warned. If Honduran lawmakers had loosened their country’s abortion ban, she’d hoped other nations in the region would rethink their own, especially as countries like El Salvador are currently facing international scrutiny over their abortion bans.
“Our hope was to have at least one good [outcome],” she said, “so it could be replicating and influencing the rest.”