Posted inGlobal Affairs

Abortion reform is now practically impossible in Honduras, but hope remains

In January, the Honduran Parliament approved a bill that practically cemented the total abortion ban that has been constitutionally enshrined since 1985. On Monday, 25th of January, the constitutional “lock” bill – as described to Vice World News by Mario Perez, the MP who tabled it –  was rubber-stamped. It is expected to be ratified in a year with little opposition. 

The bill requires three-quarters of Congress to vote in favour of modifying the existing abortion laws for anything to change in the future. Traditionally, constitutional changes only needed to be approved by a two-thirds majority, but the new legislation goes even further. Considering that in 2017, only 8 out of 128 legislators voted in favour of a law decriminalising abortion in cases of rape, incest or where there was significant risk to the mother and foetus, the likelihood of a 96 person majority is almost nil. The legislation applies the same draconian restrictions to a ban on same-sex marriage.

As if the three-quarter majority was not enough protection against pro-choice legislation, the bill also excludes any possibility that the Honduran courts could rule on the right to abortion as the US Supreme Court did in its Roe vs Wade judgement.

Honduras was already one of only four countries in Latin America that prohibits all abortions, regardless of the circumstances. This is made possible by a constitutional article that gives foetuses the same legal status as living people. Not only is abortion banned, but the use of emergency contraceptives, even in the case of rape, is also legally punishable. Though charges are rarely filed, those undergoing or performing an abortion in Honduras can face between three and six years of jail time.

The move by the conservative government could be a seen as a panicked response to the “green wave”; a pro-choice campaign making its mark in Latin America. However,  President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s personal desire to distract attention from drug trafficking and corruption allegations against him and his family is an unrelated factor. The recent success of the “green wave” movement in Argentina, which legalised abortion up to the 14th week in December 2020, is evidently causing a backlash in countries where Catholic conservatives are in control.

Certainly, the radical move by Argentina barely a month ago caused enough anxiety for the Honduran government to feel the need to introduce what they have described as a “shield against abortion”. The bill’s proposer, Perez, told VICE World News that “What happened in Argentina worried me, I won’t deny it” and claimed that “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”.

A statement on the 19th January from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner deplores these further attacks on the rights to safe abortions. According to UN data, in Honduras, one in four women become pregnant at least once before they turn 19. A 2011-2012 government survey, the most recent data collected by the Honduran government, found that approximately the same proportion of women have been physically or sexually abused by a partner. The numbers have no doubt risen during the Covid-19 pandemic, as evidence is now emerging that cases of domestic abuse have risen worldwide as a result of national lockdowns. These figures, combined with the terrifying rates of femicide  – a woman is murdered every 22 hours – contribute to a toxic atmosphere for women that is undoubtedly fuelling high levels of migration from Honduras to the US. 

Nevertheless, Cristina Alvarado, representative of the Women’s Movement for Peace, told The Guardian that there are reasons to remain optimistic in the face of such an “absolute violation of the reproductive rights of women and girls”. In a promise to both the government and women of Honduras she said: “We are going to keep fighting for the right to decide” – a sentiment that is no doubt echoed by all those participating in the “green movement” who are battling for the rights of women in Latin America. In the face of such a blatant attempt by the Honduran government to make pro-choice legislation almost impossible to pass, there is still hope.