This week, lawmakers in Honduras changed the country’s constitution to make it virtually impossible to legalize abortion in the future – an extreme election-year move that critics warn will further endanger women’s health.
On Thursday, the country’s Congress ratified a January 21 amendment to constitutional Article 67, which now specifically prohibits any “interruption of life” to a fetus, “whose life must be respected from the moment of conception.”
Honduras was already one of few countries worldwide with a complete ban on abortion, meaning the operation can’t be performed even in cases of rape or incest, when the fetus is gravely deformed, and if the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. The use, sale, distribution and purchase of emergency contraception is also prohibited.
The new reform, known as “Shield Against Abortion in Honduras” and promoted by Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s ruling National Party, also now creates a legal “shield” against future changes to the ban.
The changes raise the Congressional voting threshold to modify abortion law from two-thirds majority to three-quarters. Since Honduras’s unicameral Congress has 128 deputies, the new rules would require at least 96 to vote for future changes to these articles – an unlikely scenario at the moment, since 86 voted for the amendments.
The reform also blocks any future attempts to repeal or modify the change. “Legal provisions created after the effective date of this Article that establish otherwise, will be null and void,” states the ruling from the Congressional commission appointed to the matter.
“As a woman and a mother, I am in favor of life and against abortion, I want to speak on behalf of those who are in the mother’s womb and cannot be opposed,” said Gloria Bonilla, a Deputy for the Liberal Party who voted for the change.
Women’s rights advocates have fiercely condemned the change. Merly Eguigure, an activist with the Honduran rights organization Movimiento de Mujeres por La Paz “Visitación Padilla” told CNN it would only reinforce dangerous conditions for Honduran women.
“The shield law will continue to condemn poor women to practice abortion in unsafe conditions, which could lead to death on the one hand or to prison on the other,” Eguigure said.
According to September 2020 report by the World Health Organization, unsafe abortions account for between 4.7% and 13.2% of maternal deaths globally, each year. The report also notes that “restrictive laws are not effective in reducing the rate of abortion.”
An epidemic of sexual violence
While it is hard to know how many women and underaged girls have clandestine abortions in Honduras, the Honduran NGO Women’s Rights Center estimates that between 50,000 and 80,000 such abortions occur in the country each year.
The country has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world – often a significant factor in unwanted pregnancies. Nearly one in three Honduran women over the age of 15 has experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner, data from the United Nations’ 2020 Human Development Reports shows.
In 2018, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) carried out a health campaign aimed at providing medical and mental health care to survivors of sexual violence in Mexico and Honduras. In the Honduran capital city of Tegucigalpa, 90% of all pregnancy cases attended by the MSF mission were due to sexual assault.
Nineteen percent of those cases were teenage mothers under 18 years old. “We know that a teenage pregnancy has a major risk of complications, putting both mother and baby at risk,” said Tania Marin, MSF Regional Medical Coordinator for Mexico and Honduras.
The adolescent birth rate in Honduras is higher than the region’s average and more than twice the global average, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
The minimum age for legal sexual consent in Honduras is 14. But in 2017 alone, 820 girls aged between 10 to 14 gave birth in Honduras, according to data from the health secretary cited by HRW.
Political pressures in a major election year
Nevertheless, for over 30 years the Honduran government has clung to a system that penalizes women with up to six years of prison for obtaining an abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.
In February 1997, Honduras’s penal code was modified to establish a penalty from three to six years in prison for women who obtain an abortion and for the medical staff who are involved in the process. In April 2009, the country’s Congress passed a bill banning emergency contraception – a move upheld by the Supreme Court in 2012.
Pressure from Honduran religious groups is widely seen as the dominant political force in maintaining such strict laws on abortion.
“It’s impossible to understand how abortion is viewed in Honduras without considering the outsized role religion plays,” write researchers Amy Braunschweiger and Margaret Wurth in a June 2019 report for Human Rights Watch. “Conservative Christian churches, both Catholic and evangelical Protestant, are extremely influential and the vast majority of Hondurans belong to one or the other.”
And experts from a United Nations working group that visited Honduras in November 2018 reported that “both Catholic and evangelical churches have significant influence over political decision-making bodies and public opinion, including in the discussion of the decriminalization of abortion in three circumstances and lifting the prohibition on emergency contraception.”
Eguigure, the women’s rights activist, put it more bluntly. “The country is coopted by religious fanatics.”
2021 is a major election year in Honduras, with both the presidency and all 128 seats of Congress up for grabs. Though abortion is not a historically decisive voting issue for Hondurans, the topic may have been particularly sensitive amid the recent wave of pro-choice rulings in the region.
“Abortion is murder, it is taking the life of those who want to be born,” Pastor Oswaldo Canales, President of the Evangelical Confraternity of Honduras told members of Congress during a January 19 discussion session on abortion with other religious leaders, including a priest from the Catholic Church.
Honduras is one of six countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti and Suriname to prohibit abortion altogether, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute.
But Neesa Medina, a member of feminist collective Somos Muchas, told CNN she believes its extreme anti-abortion stance cannot endure forever. The shield law reveals a real fear of Latin America’s growing pro-choice movement, she believes.
“They don’t realize that it’s impossible to stop the future,” said Medina.
Reporting contributed by CNN en Español’s Elvin Sandoval and CNN’s Jack Guy.