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Guatemalan women face up to 10 years in prison under new abortion law


President Alejandro Giammattei speaking in Guatemala City on Wednesday.

By Natalie Kitroeff, Oscar López and Jody García


Guatemalan lawmakers have passed a sweeping new bill mandating up to 10 years of jail time for women who obtain abortions, explicitly banning same-sex marriage and preventing schools from teaching about sexual diversity.


The measure, which was approved Tuesday and is expected to be signed into law by Guatemala’s conservative president within weeks, would impose the harshest punishment for abortion of almost any country in Latin America. It bucks the trend toward broadening access to the procedure throughout the region in recent years.


“I voted for it because of what has happened in other countries,” said Armando Castillo, a Guatemalan congressman who backed the measure. “The point of this is to set a trend, so that can never happen here.”


Human rights groups warned that the measure would most likely spur more women to seek abortion in unsafe settings, driving up maternal deaths.


“This is the most regressive and wholesale attack on the rights of women and LGBT people that has been passed by a national legislature in Latin America in at least the last 10 years,” said Cristian González Cabrera, a Human Rights Watch researcher. “Even more women will be forced to put their health and lives at risk.”


For President Alejandro Giammattei, analysts said, the lurch even further to the right on abortion could partly be a play to shore up political support at a moment when he is facing an array of enormous political challenges at home, and rising tensions in his relationship with the United States.


Giammattei remains deeply unpopular in Guatemala, where high-profile corruption investigations have ensnared the president and his inner circle.


Late last year, prosecutors opened an inquiry into allegations that the Guatemalan president accepted bribes from Russian businessmen in exchange for access to a key port. And his attorney general has continued to undermine the nation’s judiciary, detaining former prosecutors and targeting a judge handling the nation’s most sensitive corruption cases.


Those moves have alienated the Biden administration. On Tuesday, the State Department spokesman, Ned Price, issued a statement condemning the “brazen attacks on Guatemala’s justice system through politically motivated arrests and detentions of current and former public servants fighting corruption.”


In an earlier statement to The New York Times, the president’s office denied that Giammattei had accepted bribes.


Guatemala already mandated prison time for anyone who got an abortion, except in cases where the woman’s life was at risk, and same-sex couples have never been allowed to marry in the country. But for the president, the new bill carries symbolic weight, analysts said.


“He’s reaching out and trying to amplify his base when he is increasingly weak and isolated, and increasingly in confrontation with the Biden administration,” said Eric Olson, an expert on Central America at the Seattle International Foundation. “This also helps his relationship with a network of conservative evangelical congressmen in the United States.”


On Wednesday, Giammattei participated in a ceremony declaring Guatemala the “pro-life capital” of Latin America. He was joined by representatives of the Family Research Council, a prominent evangelical group based in Washington, the group said.


In remarks recorded for the event, one American lawmaker, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., praised the Guatemalan leader “for his dedicated efforts to defend the lives of unborn children.” Daines, who is chairman of the Senate’s Pro-Life Caucus, said, “The unborn are under attack from powerful external forces, particularly in Latin America.”


The measure was greeted with mixed reactions in Guatemala, even among anti-abortion activists.


José Estuardo Córdova, legal director for the Family Matters Association, one of the country’s main anti-abortion groups, said that while the group supported harsher penalties for abortion providers, increasing penalties for women who undergo the procedure made less sense.


“I think it was approved a bit on the fly,” Córdova said. “The process of creating this bill has lacked serious technical analysis.”


Guatemala allows abortion only to save the life of the mother, but the new bill adds restrictions in those cases, too. Doctors providing an abortion to a woman at risk of death will now have to get another physician to agree that the procedure is necessary — a significant hurdle in vast rural swaths of the country where medical professionals are scarce.


“In those communities, it is difficult to find two doctors to treat one woman,” said Lucrecia Hernández Mack, a Guatemalan congresswoman who voted against the proposed law. “A pregnant woman in danger is going to arrive and the doctor will not be able to perform an abortion, and people are going to die.”


The bill — passed on International Women’s Day — imposes a sentence of up to 12 years for doctors who perform the procedure, among the most severe penalties in the region.


Under the measure, schools would not be allowed to teach that gay or lesbian sex is “normal,” or discuss LGBTQ issues with children and teenagers. And the bill explicitly codifies marriage as being between “a man and a woman.”


If the bill, as expected, becomes law, Guatemala would have among the most severe penalties for women who seek abortions in the region, and would go further even than its conservative neighbors to bar any movement on LGBTQ rights.


Last year, lawmakers in Honduras approved an amendment that would make it all but impossible to repeal articles of the constitution that prohibit abortion and make same-sex marriage illegal. In El Salvador, abortion is illegal under all circumstances, including rape. Gay marriage is forbidden and there is no legal gender recognition for trans people.


But Honduras and El Salvador offer limited protections for LGBTQ people, including laws that punish hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. “Guatemala has none,” said González, the Human Rights Watch researcher.

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