Honduras is poised to ratify legislation that hardens the country’s prohibition on abortion and makes it almost impossible to legalize the procedure.
Dubbed by proponents as the “shield against abortion in Honduras,” the move is a reaction to advances against anti-abortion laws in Latin America, in particular the legalization of abortion in Argentina late last year.
The Argentine bill was celebrated by feminists and human rights organizations as a sign of positive changes to come in a region with some of the harshest anti-abortion laws in the world.
In contrast, Honduras has among the most draconian restrictions: abortion has been banned in all circumstances, even rape, incest or if the life of the mother is at risk, since 1985.
Women, girls, or medical professionals who break the law face between three and ten years in prison.
The new legislation incorporates the illegality of abortion into the constitution, stating that “it is considered prohibited and illegal by the mother or a third party to practice any kind of interruption of a life that is about to be born.”
Legislators also established the highest number of votes possible - three quarters of Congress, or 96 of 128 votes - in order to modify the article in the constitution. That same threshold will also now apply to the article that only recognizes marriage between a man and a woman.
The reforms were approved last week in an expedited process. It requires another ratification from Congress, that could come as early as this week.
More than 400 international organizations have condemned the move in a country where one in four girls is pregnant at least once before the age of 19, many by rape or incest. A group of United Nations human rights experts “deplore further attacks against the right to safe abortion” while the European Parliament said it is “clearly contrary to international human rights standards” and urged the Honduran government to reconsider.
“It is a clear message, saying that the lives and dignity of women and girls in Honduras doesn’t matter,” Paula Ávila-Guillen, executive director of the Women's Equality Center, and an international human rights attorney, told VICE World News.
“In Honduras it is already illegal for a woman to have an abortion even to save her own life. In Honduras, girls who are 10 years old are forced to give birth. In Honduras, women cannot access emergency contraception, even in cases of rape,” she said. “It’s already such a bad situation for women and girls, that this just seems really vicious.”
Ávila-Guillen said Honduran legislators saw the tide of pro-legalization support rising out of Argentina as proof that “change is coming” and responded with a move she said is unconstitutional and driven by powerful evangelical churches backing the government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez.
“What happened in Argentina worried me, I won’t deny it,” Mario Perez, the legislator who put forward the constitutional amendment in line with his religious beliefs, told VICE World News.
“Even here, there were legislators who voted against the reform and are pro-abortion. At any time any one of them could propose a project to decriminalize it so that abortion became legal in Honduras, so we wanted to put this lock on it first,” said Perez, a member of the conservative National Party.
Mauricio Oliva, president of Congress, echoed that in remarks last week: “We cannot allow dissonant voices to believe that Honduras will follow in the footsteps of evil, like other nations that have turned an act as infamous as taking the life of a fetus, into something that is legal.”
In addition to Argentina, Uruguay, Guyana, Cuba, along with Mexico City and the Mexican state of Oaxaca, allow women to seek abortions in the early stages of pregnancy without having to give a reason. Several countries in Latin American permit it in certain cases, such as rape or if the life of the mother is at risk. Honduras and four other countries have banned it completely.
However, illegality does not prevent abortions from happening, in secret, and sometimes dangerous settings. In a statement issued last week, a group of United Nations experts estimated between 51,000 and 82,000 unsafe abortions may happen in Honduras every year.
“The criminalisation of abortion and the obligation of medical professionals to report cases of women whose injuries appear related to unsafe abortions have led to women being incarcerated," the experts said. This may also have a wider chilling effect, they warn, leading women who suffer a miscarriage or other complications not to seek medical attention.
Emergency contraception - the morning after pill - is also banned and can result in incarceration for those who sell it or use it.
Honduras also has the second highest rate of adolescent pregnancy in Latin America, the highest rate of femicide, and endemic sexual violence, all of which drives women and girls to flee the country, said Ávila-Guillen, pointing to the migrant caravans that travel north.
For Perez, the legislator, the solution to clandestine abortions is not to open up a clinic. “It’s a crime. We have to fight it,” he said. And he rejected the notion that a woman should have autonomy over her body. “Her body is her ovaries, her body is her uterus but the life that is growing inside her is not hers.”
Beatriz Valle, a Honduran politician and television presenter, denounced the “retrograde” and “extremist” views that still dominate lawmakers in her homeland.
“It infuriates me that it’s men who are making decisions over the bodies of women, it’s really outrageous,” said Valle, a member of the Libre party.
“Doctors here conduct abortions for women who have money, and they write it up like another procedure, or women travel to the United States, or Mexico or some other country where it is legal,” she said. “The people who have the problem are poor women and 70 percent of the population is poor.”
Ávila-Guillen said that while more authoritarian leaders in the region might take heed from Honduras, the movement urging an expansion of women’s rights is stronger.
Legalization in Argentina wasn’t the result of one government, she added, but the mobilization of millions of people in the streets. “That’s similar to what we have seen in Chile, that’s similar to what we have seen in Mexico, even in El Salvador [which has prohibition]. Women and people are marching, asking for more liberal laws,” she said.
Feminists in Honduras say they will do the same.
“This is an enormous rock in the path,” said Neesa Medina, a member of the women’s rights group Somos Muchas en Tegucigalpa. “But the road still exists, they didn’t destroy the road.”