Honduras provides 'frightening preview' of what could happen with abortion in US, warns Human Rights Watch

Honduras’ criminal code imposes prison sentences of up to six years on women and girls who induce abortions and on medical professionals who provide them

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Thursday 06 June 2019 10:00 BST
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Handmaid-themed protesters march in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, to protest the proposed "heartbeat bill" that bans abortion after six weeks in that state.
Handmaid-themed protesters march in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, to protest the proposed "heartbeat bill" that bans abortion after six weeks in that state. (Emily Kask/AFP/Getty)

Honduras provides a “frightening preview” of what could happen in America if the clampdown on abortion rights continues, a leading human rights organisation has warned.

Honduras is one of only a handful of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean with a total ban on abortion in all circumstances. Abortion is even 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.

Honduras’ criminal code imposes prison sentences of up to six years on women and girls who induce abortions and on medical professionals who provide them. The government also bans the “morning after pill” – emergency contraception which can prevent pregnancy after rape, unprotected sex, or a contraceptive failure.

Margaret Wurth, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “As Alabama, Missouri and other US states move to restrict access to abortion, Honduras provides a frightening preview of what could come in the US.

“This is what things could look like in the US if courts permit cruel state laws like Alabama’s to weaken or dismantle the abortion rights protected in the Roe v Wade decision.”

Increasing numbers of states across America have introduced bills that attempt to ban women from having abortions – with legislation to restrict abortion rights having been introduced in 16 states this year.

The study, which is called “Life or Death Choices for Women Living Under Honduras’ Abortion Ban,” shares stories of Honduran women confronting the “cruel effects” of the abortion law.

They include a woman facing prison after having a miscarriage, a woman forced to bear her rapist’s child, women who experienced complications from clandestine abortions, a pro-choice pastor who has faced death threats for her activism, a doctor who cannot always act in her patients’ best interests, and women who share information about safe abortion in secret via an anonymous phone line.

One woman researchers spoke to was unaware she was pregnant when she went to a hospital in intense pain. Doctors, however, suspected she had attempted an abortion and rang the police. She was taken from the hospital in handcuffs and is awaiting trial on criminal charges.

“I wanted to die,” said one woman when she learned of an unwanted pregnancy.

“I wanted to destroy myself,” added another. Several said they knew instantly that they needed to have clandestine abortions.

“Banning abortion does not stop it, but it forces women and girls to put their health and lives at risk to end pregnancies behind closed doors, in fear and desperation and without medical care,” Ms Wurth said. “Honduras’ draconian law is leading to enormous suffering among women and girls and their families.”

She added: “Women and girls around the world will always need access to abortion and will have no choice but to defy laws that violate their reproductive rights. Policymakers – from Honduras to Alabama – should recognise that banning abortion is as ineffectual as it is cruel.”

The human rights organisation carried out interviews with women in Honduras who had faced unwanted pregnancy, as well with campaigners and service providers.

Public health data suggests at least 40 per cent of pregnancies in Honduras are unplanned or unwanted at the time they take place. Some unintended pregnancies are caused by rape.

Campaigners say Honduras suffers from one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the hemisphere, and that half of sexually active young women face barriers to obtaining modern contraceptives. A 2011-2012 government survey found nearly one in four women in Honduras has been physically or sexually abused by a partner.

Women told researchers they attempted to end unwanted pregnancies by using medication or going to clandestine clinics – with several women being forced to seek emergency treatment at hospitals afterwards for complications such as uncontrolled bleeding or intense pain.

Data from the Honduras health secretary shows more than 8,600 women went to hospital for complications from abortion or miscarriage in 2017.

While, the use of misoprostol – a medication used to induce labour and to treat stomach ulcers – for medical abortion has decreased the risk of complications in countries where legal access is restricted, women told researchers it could be expensive and tricky to get.

The World Health Organisation estimates that each year between five per cent to 12 per cent of maternal deaths globally can be attributed to unsafe abortion – with the annual cost of treating major complications from unsafe abortion estimated at $553m (£435m).

The Honduran health secretary reported that only one of the country’s 23 maternal deaths in 2017 was caused by abortion but the figure could be higher because criminalisation means many women are forced to hide their abortion. Research demonstrates that deaths from unsafe abortion are often misattributed to other causes in nations where abortion is criminalised.

While Human Rights Watch requested data on prosecutions for illegal abortions from the Honduran Attorney General’s office, they did not receive a response. Nevertheless, stories of women arrested for suspected abortions in the country grab headlines each year.

The report comes after a new law mandating a near total ban on abortion was signed into law by the governor in Alabama last month. Under the law, doctors would face 10 years in prison for attempting to terminate a pregnancy and 99 years for carrying out the procedure.

The abortion ban, which has been branded a “death sentence for women”, would even criminalise performing abortions in cases of rape and incest. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said the new law might be “unenforceable” due to Roe v Wade but said the new law was passed with the aim of challenging that decision.

Anti-abortion activists hope legislation banning abortion being introduced across America will ultimately lead to the US Supreme Court reversing Roe vs Wade – the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion nationwide in 1973 – especially with new conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh sitting on the court.

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