Honduras has moved to permanently outlaw abortion in the conservative Central American nation less than a month after Argentina legalised termination on demand.
Rights groups called Thursday’s vote, which makes it harder to overturn a four decades-old constitutional ban on abortions, as an “abysmal step backwards” for women in a country plagued by domestic violence and teen pregnancy. One in four Honduran women has been pregnant at least once before the age of 19.
“They’ve erected a protective shield against abortion,” said Cristina Alvarado of the Women for Peace Visitación Padilla women’s rights group. “This is historic . . . Even though abortion is already not permitted here in any circumstances, this move bullet-proofs that.”
Honduras’ legislature will rubber stamp the change on Monday. January 25 is celebrated as women’s day in the Central American nation, on the anniversary of women being granted the right to vote in 1955.
The amendment must be ratified by Congress in a year, but that was widely seen as a formality. Any modification would need a three-quarters majority — higher than normal — and any attempt to strike it down in any future constitution would need unanimous support from a constituent assembly.
“It’s an abysmal step backwards,” Ms Alvarado said. “Women will continue having unsafe abortions. We’re on our own.”
The legislation also banned same-sex marriage. UN Human Rights called the move worrying and said it violated the principles of equality and non-discrimination.
“In other words, they’re trying to make these provisions on same-sex marriage and abortion perpetual,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division at advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
Argentina in December became the first major Latin American country to legalise abortion — a signal for activists to redouble efforts to liberalise legislation in other countries in the region.
In Brazil, abortion is a crime, albeit tolerated if the pregnancy is the result of a rape, if it puts the mother’s life at risk or if the foetus has severe brain malformation. In Mexico, two states have made it legal in the first trimester.
But Honduras is one of a handful of countries, including El Salvador and Nicaragua, that ban abortion whatever the circumstances. Women in El Salvador can be jailed for 40 years for murder for terminating a pregnancy or suffering a miscarriage; in Honduras, women can also face prison.
“This constitutional initiative reveals that rightwing extremist conservative politicians in Honduras are in a panic as a result of the legalisation of abortion in Argentina,” said Mr Vivanco “There’s no question they feel threatened.”
The UN estimates there are as many as 82,000 unsafe abortions every year in Honduras, where the sale, distribution and purchase of emergency contraception is subject to the same prison penalties as abortion.
Honduras has the second-highest teen pregnancy rate in the region and Ms Alvarado noted that 882 girls between 10 and 14 gave birth in 2019 highlighting “enormous sexual abuse”. In rural areas, teen pregnancy rates are 30 per cent, according to a UN working group.
In addition, there were some 300 femicides last year and more than 100,000 Honduran women rang 911 seeking help because of domestic abuse and other family violence but only 2.5 per cent of those calls led to criminal complaints.
Violence is one factor fuelling migration to the US. Even though one caravan of Hondurans was blocked by Guatemala last weekend, calls on social media for another to depart on Friday were circulating.
Conservative and church groups in Central America are powerful pro-life supporters. In El Salvador, an attempt to decriminalise abortion was blocked in Congress in 2018.
The move to lock in Honduras’ blanket ban on abortion was not just symbolic, Mr Vivanco said. “It’s to make sure you can freeze the status quo and prevent any kind of debate on the subject.”
Given that abortion is already banned in Honduras, Ms Alvarado called the legislation an attempt to detract from mounting drug trafficking allegations against conservative President Juan Orlando Hernández ahead of elections in November in which he cannot stand.