In the days since the Congress of Honduras hardened its absolute prohibition of abortion, the ranks of a feminist organisation that has been campaigning for decriminalisation in the staunchly conservative nation have been swelling.
The new recruits to the women’s rights group, Somos Muchas, are mostly young women between the ages of 18 and 30 who have been moved into action by recent events. For local activists, it is a sign that change is still possible in a country with some of the most severe restrictions on abortion in the world.
“They did it out of fear,” said Neesa Medina, an activist with Somos Muchas, about lawmakers’ push to strengthen the prohibition. “Because they think they can ban the future. But you can’t ban the future.”
It has been forbidden to terminate a pregnancy in Honduras under any circumstance, even rape, incest, or if the life of the mother is in danger, since 1985.
The Congress has now put a legal lock on that position by explicitly adding the abortion ban to its constitution, and setting the number of votes required in order to make a future change at the highest level – three-quarters of Congress.
A chorus of international organisations, including the United Nations and the European Parliament, sounded the alarm, and urged the legislative body to reconsider a move they said not only violates human rights standards but will inflict further harm on women and girls.
Response to Argentina
The Congress ratified the amendment on January 28 and celebrated the approval on Twitter, where it shared messages of congratulations from politicians and anti-legalisation groups around the world, including Spain, Colombia, Brazil and the Dominican Republic.
“This state power is committed to continue defending and fighting for life,” the Twitter account for the National Congress posted.
El Congreso Nacional, agradece a cada una de las instituciones sociales, que han aplaudido y felicitado la reforma constitucional del artículo 67, del proyecto “Escudo Contra el Aborto”, este Poder del Estado está comprometido a seguir defendiendo y luchando por la vida. https://t.co/cdGfAipDK4
— Congreso Nacional (@Congreso_HND) January 29, 2021
Their decision came as feminist movements across Latin America are reasserting their prominence, in particular after Argentina legalised elective abortion until the 14th week.
That landmark approval in December was hailed by campaigners as a sign of things to come in the region – and triggered Mario Perez, a Honduran legislator for the ruling National Party, to draft the “shield against abortion in Honduras” law, which he hopes will serve as a “padlock” against efforts to legalise in the future. Honduras is also in the middle of an election campaign.
“Honduras is a country that is very Christian, most of us are Christian, and I’d like to think that on the street, in the valley, people would not [be in support of legalisation],” Perez said in an earlier interview.
Honduras is one of six countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to prohibit abortion completely.
Several allow it in certain circumstances, such as rape or if the life of the mother is at risk. Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico City and the Mexican state of Oaxaca allow women to terminate pregnancies in the early stages without having to provide a reason.
But while it is illegal and subject to anywhere from three to 10 years in jail for the woman or medical practitioner, abortions are still happening in Honduras in secret, and sometimes dangerous, settings – and those who are caught violating the law are sent to jail.
An estimated 51,000 to 82,000 unsafe abortions happen every year, according to a working group of UN experts. Emergency contraception is also banned, and UN experts say that, along with a lack of access to contraception in general, contributes to a high rate of unwanted pregnancy.
Honduras has the second-highest rate of adolescent pregnancy in Latin America. One in four girls under the age of 19 has been pregnant at least once.
Somos Muchas has organised an online orientation session to walk the new, young activists through their mandate. The group also is devising strategies to mount a legal challenge to the legislative change and to get health information to women.
But in the meantime, Medina said the recent reform will instil more fear on the ground. “In Honduras, there are women who have miscarriages, and they’re too afraid to look for help because the only thing they hear is that abortion is a crime; it’s bad,” she said. “There are few words of compassion for them.”
Regina Fonseca, a psychologist, longtime feminist and founder of the Centre for Women’s Rights in Honduras, also said clandestine abortions would increase in price as a result of the hardened prohibition.
“And that affects poorer and younger women, who have less access to resources, and may submit themselves to dangerous practices, which can generate more deaths,” she said.
Human Rights Watch said, “The reform violates international human rights law, which establishes that denying women and girls access to abortion is a form of discrimination and jeopardizes a range of human rights.”
It also said the bill “misleadingly” refers to Article 4(1) of the American Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to life.
“The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has made clear that Article 4(1) does not recognize an absolute right to life before birth. The court has also found that the embryo cannot be understood to be a human being for the purposes of Article 4(1).”
Legislators, religious groups defend move
But members of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s conservative National Party, along with religious forces, said it is life, which must be protected.
“Abortion is murder, it is taking the life of the person who wants to be born,” Pastor Oswaldo Canales, president of the Evangelical Confraternity of Honduras, said at a public consultation session with religious leaders that was televised from the National Congress prior to the vote.
During that same session, Mauricio Oliva, president of the National Congress, said Honduras cannot follow “in the footsteps of evil” taken by other nations that have legalised “an act as infamous as taking the life of a growing fetus”.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, Tomas Zambrano, a member of the National Party and the secretary of the National Congress, said legislators are aware of the arguments put forward by human rights groups and the UN.
“This has to do with a measure that is in harmony with our values and social and cultural principles that make us unique as a society and that should be protected and respected according to the principle of free determination of peoples, which is also protected by the Charter of the United Nations and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” he said.
The government said the ratification vote was 90 in favour, in a Congress of 128 seats, but did not specify the number of votes against or if there were any abstentions.
Fonseca said the process was riddled with “anomalies” and that activists intend to fight the results at the Supreme Court, although the timeline is not yet clear. There are also discussions about whether activists should start working more publicly to share information about safe abortion practices.
“There is a lot of international support and solidarity, and there are more people who understand a little better the contempt towards women, and that helps us to act with more public support,” said Fonseca, who also noted the topic failed to capture the attention of the local mainstream media.
Still, Medina said she is encouraged by the number of legislators who did not approve the measure, as it was far greater than the number who had supported a bid to relax the prohibition in 2017. Only eight out of 128 legislators voted that year in favour of allowing abortion in cases of rape, incest, when the mother’s life is at risk, or when the fetus cannot survive outside the womb.
“You can see the cracks in the system, in the government, and that’s why they’re closing ranks,” said Medina. “And it’s in those cracks that this will all crumble.”