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Guatemala: Reject ‘Life and Family Protection’ Law

Dangerous Attack on Rights of Women and LGBT People

An indigenous woman holds a placard reading 'My Body My Territory Is to be Respected' as she demonstrates on International Women's Day in Guatemala City on March 8, 2018.  © 2018 Getty Images

(New York) – Guatemalan legislators should reject an extraordinarily dangerous “Life and Family Protection” bill that would seriously undermine the rights of women and LGBT people in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. The proposed legislation has been approved twice by Congress and needs a third approval, in addition to a final approval of each individual article, before being sent to the president and signed into law.

The bill expands the criminalization of abortion and could subject women who have miscarriages to prosecution – or at least to questioning by law enforcement authorities. It also includes definitions of “family” and “sexual diversity” that are openly discriminatory and run counter to basic rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

“If Congress passes this bill, it will send the message that women and LGBT people are second-class citizens in Guatemala,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The proposal lacks basic common sense and humanity and could even turn women and girls who miscarry into criminals.”

Under current law, abortion is legal in Guatemala only when the life of a pregnant woman or girl is in danger. The new proposal defines abortion as the “natural or provoked death” of an embryo or fetus and establishes prison sentences of up to four years for women who have an “abortion by negligence.”

If Congress passes this bill, it will send the message that women and LGBT people are second-class citizens in Guatemala.
José Miguel Vivanco

Executive Director, Americas Division

Studies suggest as many as 30 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage early in gestation, and at least 10 percent of clinically recognized pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion. Pregnancy loss can occur because of fetal chromosomal abnormalities, advanced maternal age, or prior miscarriage, all beyond the control of the pregnant woman or her healthcare provider. Spontaneous abortions occur for many reasons, and studies show that caffeine intake, legal and non-legal drugs, and smoking may contribute to risks of miscarriage.

“This bill could lead to absurd and discriminatory outcomes,” Vivanco said. “A woman recovering from a miscarriage could find herself interrogated by law enforcement about the loss of her pregnancy.”

The bill would also heavily restrict access to legal abortion for pregnant women whose lives are in danger, by requiring additional medical approvals for providers to perform life-saving, or therapeutic, abortions. Requiring additional medical authorization could render therapeutic abortion inaccessible for many women and girls in poor or rural areas with limited access to health services.

The bill criminalizes “the promotion of abortion” in broad terms, stating that anyone who “directly or indirectly” “promotes or facilitates means” for women to have abortions could be sentenced to 10 years in prison. This provision could be invoked to sanction and silence organizations or individuals that provide sexual and reproductive information, counseling, or referrals to help reduce sickness and death from clandestine and unsafe abortion, Human Rights Watch said. 

The bill also contains provisions that discriminate against LGBT people. For example, it “expressly prohibits” same-sex marriage and defines “family” as being limited to a “father, mother, and children.” The bill defines marriage as a union between people who were a man and a woman “by birth,” excluding transgender people. While same-sex marriage is currently not recognized in Guatemala, the bill would entrench and reinforce that unacceptable reality, Human Rights Watch said.

Moreover, the proposal establishes that “freedom of conscience and expression” protect people from being “obliged to accept non-heterosexual conduct or practices as normal.” This seems intended to expressly permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, in clear violation of Guatemala’s international obligations.

“Freedom of conscience and expression are not a blank check to discriminate against LGBT people,” Vivanco said. “The ‘family protection’ provisions in this bill amount to nothing more than the promotion of homophobia.”

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