Tegucigalpa, Honduras – On a rainy day two years ago, 26-year-old domestic worker Lucia* was sent outside to shut the gate of her employer’s home in a rural area on the outskirts of the Honduran capital. Her employers didn’t want the sheep to get out. As Lucia headed back inside, she slipped and fell, hitting her back on the ground, according to court documents. She didn’t know it at the time, but she was 24 weeks pregnant.
During the early hours the following morning, Lucia screamed in pain. Another domestic worker informed Lucia’s employer, who then took her to a nearby hospital in Tegucigalpa, a 20-minute drive from her home. There Lucia learned that she had been more than five months pregnant and had lost the fetus. But what Lucia could not have known then was that her long journey of trauma was only just beginning.
When the police arrived at the hospital, they informed Lucia that she was being charged with a crime. Honduras enforces a strict abortion law that bars the procedure under all possible circumstances.
The prosecutor accused Lucia of taking abortion-inducing pills, although her defence maintained that she had suffered a miscarriage, according to court documents reviewed by Al Jazeera. The state had no evidence that Lucia had taken medicine to terminate the pregnancy, the defence argued.
Of the 26 countries worldwide that have fully criminalised abortion, six are in Latin America. Honduran law defines an abortion as “the death of a human being at any moment during pregnancy or birth”. A woman convicted of intentionally having an abortion can wind up in prison for between three and six years.
Doctors, healthcare professionals, or anyone else convicted of performing an abortion can land in prison for up to 10 years, although the state can increase the penalty when an abortion is carried out without the mother’s consent or through violence or coercion.
Women’s rights organisations have struggled to identify the total number of women convicted or accused of abortion. The government institution Digital Center for Judicial Documentation and Information (CEDIJ) identified 22 abortion cases opened from 2011 to October 2018, although government data is sparse, often conflicting, and difficult to obtain.
Al Jazeera identified nine other cases that did not appear in the centre’s count, which did not list any cases that ended in final or provisional dismissals. What is certain is the state has targeted dozens of Honduran women – Lucia among them – for allegedly receiving abortions.
In some cases examined, doctors found evidence of pills that had often been used to induce an abortion. But in others, women were charged with little evidence presented. Al Jazeera reviewed court documents from five of the government-listed cases and spoke to lawyers and activists familiar with at least four other cases. The cases show systematic persecution against women suspected of abortion – in a country suffering from high rates of impunity for violent crimes including rape and homicide.
Women have to endure a process of being blamed.
In many abortion cases, the state unevenly applied the law, while deploying terminology rife with biases. The phrases “unborn child” and “recently-born child”, for example, were often used interchangeably. In at least one case, the phrase “death of a minor” referred to an abortion.
Of the nine cases reviewed by Al Jazeera (five examined through court documents and four secondhand), none ended in a conviction. Rather, they all concluded with a final or provisional dismissal of the case.
Still, once a woman is accused, she enters into a long process of criminalisation and stigmatisation that does not end even if she is not convicted. Just going through a judicial process brought many of the women unwanted attention from local media and stigmatisation from their communities. In at least one case, the negative attention had such a profound psychological effect on a woman that she could no longer live in her community, according to her lawyer and activists.
“Women have to endure a process of being blamed,” says Marcela Arias of the Honduran organisation Center for the Rights of Women, who points to the healthcare system, justice system and media outlets as the main perpetrators of this stigma against women suspected of having abortions.
“In these three phases, they never take into consideration why a woman would make that choice. What was the context that she faced that led her to make that decision?” she asks.
At four months pregnant, 20-year-old Paula* lived with her grandmother in Choluteca, a mostly Catholic, conservative city in southeastern Honduras. Paula’s mother didn’t know her daughter was pregnant until she arrived about a year ago.
The relationship between the pair had been strained since Paula’s childhood, when her mother left Honduras. On her sporadic visits back, she often physically and verbally abused Paula and her brother, according to a lawyer representing the 20-year-old. The threat that she would stop sending money was often used to manipulate them, Paula’s grandmother told the lawyer.
Because Paula has left the country, neither Al Jazeera nor her lawyer could contact her. Court documents, activists familiar with her story, and her legal counsel, however, paint a harrowing situation.
“Her mother told her that she had ruined her future,” says Nidia Castillo, executive director for the Network of Female Lawyers Defending Human Rights, an organisation that provided legal counsel to Paula. The mother blamed her daughter for getting pregnant, and said that her husband “wasn’t useful for anything”, according to Castillo.
On September 20, 2018, Paula began feeling extreme pain in her abdomen and her grandmother decided to take her to the hospital, according to her lawyer.
When the doctor performed a gynaecological exam, he found the remnants of a pill taken to induce labour, according to documents lawyers shared with Al Jazeera. Lawyers for Paula say that the young woman did not choose to take the pills. Instead, they say that she was forced to take the pills by her mother without knowing what they were. Honduran law specifies that only those who intentionally cause an abortion can be prosecuted.
Nonetheless, Paula was arrested by authorities at the hospital, according to the case documents. A court case was opened against her for abortion, beginning a months-long process that would affect her physical and mental health, her lawyer said.
“She was a young woman in a state of poor health and even so, she had to face a judicial process,” says Castillo. “You can imagine the psychological impact that it has.” Castillo says the stress of the case caused Paula to burst into constant fits of crying and fall into a months-long depression.
Two days after she went to the hospital, a judge determined that Paula could return to her home while the case was being tried, under the condition that she would have to come into the court four times a month to sign paperwork to prove that she had not fled.
In many cases, it was common for judges to grant provisional liberty to women during their cases, but only under certain conditions that restricted their movement.
Shortly after Paula was arrested, local media began to cover her case. One news outlet described Paula’s decision to have an abortion as one rooted in vengeance against her cheating partner. Her full name, photo and neighbourhood were published.
Media coverage of abortion cases in Honduras frequently assume that the woman is guilty and play into harmful, sexist tropes, women’s rights activists say.
“The [local media] refers to the cases as child abandonment and calls them bad mothers,” says Arias. “It’s a process of stigmatising them that is very intense.”
Another article on a woman arrested in May 2017 for a suspected abortion shows the young woman, a 23-year-old mother, crying in a yellow hospital gown and handcuffs, with two police officers by her side. Other articles use anti-abortion rights language to blame women for having abortions. “Tens of fetuses never see the light of day,” one reported article begins. “The causes are diverse, but does anyone have the right to take away the life of another human being?”
In early October, Paula’s case went to trial. The defence argued that Paula was not responsible for the abortion because her mother had coerced her into ending her pregnancy, by blaming her for getting pregnant and saying that she would be alone with the baby without the help of her partner.
“She was a victim of extreme psychological abuse and was depressed for almost a year,” Castillo says. “We can’t penalise the behaviour of this young woman because she was a victim.”
Ilce Villatoro, a member of the Choluteca Network against Violence, says “the mothers often treat their daughters very cruelly when they end up pregnant.” Feminist activists from the area followed the case to support Paula, identify problems with the judicial process and ensure her right to a fair trial. “Through this case, we were able to identify the cruelty of their own mothers,” Villatoro says.
Another young feminist activist, Marcela Villatoro, member of the Young Women of Choluteca Network and Villatoro’s niece, attended the hearing. She described the public prosecutor, a woman in her 30s, as harsh and unforgiving in her questioning of Paula. The 20-year-old ended up sobbing, telling the prosecutor, “It wasn’t like that,” Marcela Villatoro recalls. This behaviour from the prosecutor contributed to Paula’s deteriorating mental health, her supporters say.
The Honduras public prosecutor’s office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
On October 6, a judge dismissed the case against Paula based on the evidence the defence presented, including psychological reports. “We proved that she had been a victim of an emotional and psychological situation that had affected her,” says Castillo.
But that was not the end of the process. Just two days later, the country’s Public Ministry, an institution tasked with investigating crimes related to the public good, filed an appeal that questioned the evidence and psychological reports filed by her defence. The appeal is still in process.
Castillo and the network of lawyers have maintained their defence. They say that the Public Ministry has not provided a solid argument for questioning their case.
Paula has since left Honduras. When her lawyer last spoke to her grandmother, she said she believed that she had gone to the US to try to start over.
“It would have been impossible for her to continue to live here after the whole process that she experienced – with the media that blame the women,” says Marcela Villatoro, who explained that the media often portrays the women in these cases as dramatic and irrational.
Evidence shows views on abortion within Honduras are changing, however. A survey conducted by public opinion firm Le Vote in 2017 found that 60 percent of Honduran men and 64 percent of Honduran women were in favour of approving abortion in cases of rape, an unviable fetus, or danger to the mother’s life.
Maria de los Angeles, 20, works at a restaurant stall at a market in downtown Tegucigalpa, where she often watches children beg for money. Seeing how many children struggle in her country is part of the reason she believes women should be able to have abortions.
“Why would you bring a child into the world if you can’t give it everything it needs?” she says. “I think [abortion] is a good option for many women.”
Her coworker at the market, Milenia Ordonez, 19, disagrees. She says there are ways for women to prevent unwanted pregnancies by using birth control pills or condoms.
But for many women, birth control is not easily accessible and stigma and misinformation prevents women from seeking family planning.
That’s why 27-year-old Teresa Ramirez did not take any form of birth control to prevent pregnancy. When she found out she was pregnant nearly six months ago, her first reaction was that she was not ready to have a child. She makes a modest wage as a domestic worker in Choluteca, near where Paula lived, and was worried about providing for her child.
But due to the stigma and the risk of criminalisation, she ultimately decided to have the baby.
“Every person is free to make their own decision,” she says about the right to have an abortion.
Single mother Nohely Bertran, 27, went through a similar experience more than eight years ago when she became pregnant unexpectedly at 18.
She thought about having an abortion, but in the end decided against it, partially because it was inaccessible because it is illegal. “If it had been legal, I might have considered it more,” she says.
“I don’t regret having my daughter, but what I do regret is having her at a young age,” she says. “If they legalise it, that’s great. Every person can decide what to do with their life.”
Despite these changing views, the anti-abortion rights movement in Honduras remains a strong voice advocating against the decriminalisation of abortion.
“I don’t think there are any exceptions,” says Michelle de Idiaquez, president of Provida Honduras, an anti-abortion rights organisation based in Tegucigalpa.
“There is a third life involved. You cannot disregard it and put a handkerchief [over your eyes] and pretend that this third life doesn’t exist,” she says, referring to the mother, father and fetus as the three lives.
The last time Honduras considered decriminalising abortion was in 2017 when Honduran legislators debated modifying the country’s penal code to allow abortion in cases of rape or incest, an unviable fetus, or when a mother’s life and health is at risk.
Women’s rights groups in Honduras and international human rights organisations lobbied for the change.
“Denying women and girls access to safe abortion services, in cases involving health reasons, fatal impairment of the fetus and pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, causes excessive and irreversible physical and psychological suffering to many women,” UN human rights experts who visited the country in 2017 wrote in a statement. “It is also the most blatant form of instrumentalisation of women’s bodies and denial of their autonomy.”
But politicians in the religiously conservative country voted overwhelmingly to maintain the total abortion ban.
Decriminalisation has not been debated among legislators in Honduras since then. So lawyers are looking for other ways to be able to legally protect women from potential prosecution for abortion, by establishing judicial precedent through cases like Paula’s.
“The abortion law needs to be modified,” says Castillo. “We can’t force a girl who has become pregnant to become a mother.”
With additional reporting by Vienna Herrera in Tegucigalpa.
*Name has been changed to protect the woman’s identity.
This article is part of a multi-part series examining reproductive health in Honduras. Also read:
The series was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice in the Americas.