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CWA # 431, 21 February 2021
Abigail Miriam Fernandez
In January 2021, the Congress in Honduras ratified an amendment to Article 67 of the constitution, prohibiting any “interruption of life to a fetus, whose life must be respected from the moment of conception.” This new reform, known as “Shield Against Abortion in Honduras” was promoted by Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez's ruling National Party, which advocated for a legal “shield” against future changes to the ban calling it a “constitutional lock” to prevent any future amendments to the abortion law.
In what is seen as one of the most draconian restrictions, the Congressional commission appointed to look into the matter stated, “Legal provisions created after the effective date of this Article that establishes otherwise, will be null and void.” Further, the measure is seen as a response to the feminist “green wave” movement sweeping across Latin America that recently achieved its biggest victory in Argentina.
The amendment has to be ratified by Congress within a year and would require at least 96 to vote for the amendment to be passed. However, that is seen as a mere formality, with 88 legislators voting in favour, 28 opposing and seven abstentions for the amendment.
Abysmal step backwards: The fightback
Rights groups across Honduras called the vote an “abysmal step backwards” for women in a country plagued by domestic violence and teen pregnancy. José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division at advocacy group Human Rights Watch stated, “This constitutional initiative reveals that right-wing extremist conservative politicians in Honduras are in a panic as a result of the legalisation of abortion in Argentina,” adding, “there’s no question they feel threatened.”
Other women’s rights groups also responded with outrage to the new legislation and the rise of gender-based violence, criticising the Catholic Church and demanded a separation of religion from the state. Further, UN human rights experts condemned the move, saying “This bill is alarming. Instead of taking a step towards fulfilling the fundamental rights of women and girls, the country is moving backwards.”
The history of abortion laws in Honduras
Abortion has been constitutionally banned in Honduras since 1982. The law defines abortion as “the death of a human being at any moment during pregnancy or birth.” Honduras is one of six countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti and Suriname which have a complete abortion ban.
In Honduras, abortion is prohibited in all circumstances, where it is illegal when a woman’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or when the fetus will not survive outside the womb. Further, unlike Nicaragua, El Salvador and Haiti, Honduras is the only country that bans emergency contraception, or the “morning-after pill.”
The law even goes to the extent of imprisonment, with the current penal law criminalising abortions under all circumstances. This restriction is directed at women who undergo the medical procedure, as well as doctors and any other medical professional who assists with the procedure. According to the law, women who undergo abortions are imprisoned from three to six years in cases where there is no consent to the abortion; six to eight years in cases where the woman has consented to the procedure and it was carried out by someone else; and eight to ten years in cases where the woman uses intimidation, violence or deception to have a third party perform the procedure.
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. However, politicians in the religiously conservative country voted overwhelmingly to maintain the total abortion ban.
Physical abuse and clandestine abortions
The United Nations estimates that are as many as 82,000 unsafe abortions every year in Honduras. Similarly, the Honduran NGO Women's Rights Centre also estimates that between 50,000 and 80,000 clandestine abortions occur each year.
The situation in Honduras is a result of a plethora of factors. First, the high rate of sexual violence. Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world, with the highest rates of sexual violence, a significant factor in unwanted pregnancies. Despite these high rates of sexual abuse in the country the government has continues to strictly prohibit the sale, distribution, and use of emergency contraception.
Second, Honduras has the second-highest teen pregnancy rate in the region. According to the United Nations' 2020 Human Development Reports, nearly one in three Honduran women over the age of 15 has experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner. According to a UN working group, 882 girls between 10 and 14 gave birth in 2019 highlighting “enormous sexual abuse”. In rural areas, teen pregnancy rates are 30 per cent. In 2018, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) carried out a health campaign that was aimed at providing medical and mental health care to survivors of sexual violence in Mexico and Honduras. In Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, 90 per cent of all pregnancy cases attended were due to sexual assault of which 19 per cent were teenage mothers under 18 years old.
Third, the alarming rate of femicide. In 2020, Honduras registered about 240 femicides, of which 171 have occurred since the state-mandated curfew. Since the pandemic, the National Observatory of Violence and others report a 4.1 per cent increase in domestic and intra-family violence. According to Honduras’ Centre for Women’s Rights, one woman is murdered every sixteen hours.
Larger forces at play: Religion and Politics
Pressure from Honduran religious groups is seen as the dominant force behind preserving such strict laws on abortion. As a result, abortion has to be viewed through this lens of religion. Conservative Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant, are extremely influential and have significant influence over political decision-making bodies and public opinion, including in the debate over the decriminalisation of abortion in the circumstances and lifting the prohibition on emergency contraception.
Politically, 2021 is a major election year in Honduras, with both the presidency and all 128 seats of Congress up for grabs. Although abortion is not historically a key voting issue for Hondurans, the topic may have been particularly sensitive amid the recent wave of pro-choice rulings in the region.
The government’s measure, “shield against abortion” would make it virtually impossible to legalise abortion, deepening the already current harsh restrictions on reproductive rights.
Not only does the government’s measure restrict further legislation, but it also makes it virtually impossible to carry out the recommendations from multiple international human rights bodies to end the violation of reproductive rights.
Further, it suggests that there is a concerted effort by both political and religious groups to make it harder for the country to join others that are making progress toward compliance with international human rights law on this issue. Lastly, it sadly depicts that abortion is not a priority for politicians in Honduras that is plagued with gender-based violence.
The above commentary is also published on our exclusive IPRI portal, a platform with a special focus on peace and conflict issues.
About the author
Abigail Miriam Fernandez is a Project Assistant at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. As part of her research focus, she looks into gender, minorities and ethnic movements in Pakistan and peace processes in South Asia.
Abigail Miriam Fernandez