In Honduras, the Right Is Permanently Locking in Its Abortion Ban

In a country that is already home to some of the worst restrictions on women’s rights, the Honduran Congress voted last month to lock in its bans on abortion and gay marriage, making them almost impossible to overturn. It’s a reminder that, as the feminist green tide washes over much of Latin America, there is still much work to be done.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández in 2015. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

On January 28, on the heels of Honduran Women’s Day (January 25), the far-right Nationalist Party–led Congress dealt a blow to feminists, LGBT people, and countless Hondurans who believe in equality and human rights. With little notice and virtually no public input, the Congress voted to amend the constitution by enshrining the “right to life at conception” and by instituting a narrow definition of marriage as “between a man and a woman.” Rushing the vote along partisan lines, normal rules of procedure were suspended, and even advocates closely following these issues were blindsided by the alacrity of the fundamental change to the nation’s most important document.

These reforms are a reflection of the Honduran right’s preoccupation with eradicating what neoconservatives around the world call “gender ideology,” a term used to propagate essentialist views of sex as defined along biological and binary lines. In this conservative framing, sexual and reproductive rights, transgender rights, and marriage equality are campaigns whipped up by ideologues that fundamentally go against human nature. The enshrining of these views in the constitution is sure to result in an increase in violence against women in a country facing one of the largest homicide rates in the world, including exorbitant evidence of gender killing. What’s more, the fact that the Congress could suspend due process to implement the constitutional amendments sets a worrying precedent.

“There Is Little Recourse for Appeal”

These kinds of regressive political moves have been typical of the presidency of Juan Orlando Hernández (who, since his election, has been linked to narco-trafficking in a federal court case in New York). Religious fundamentalists and Nationalist Party affiliates are gloating about their accomplishment. Though the attack on reproductive rights was to some extent expected, the anti-LGBT reform of article 112 has come as a surprise. Feminists and LGBT rights activists in Honduras are dismayed at the lack of due process involved. Congressional debate was all but absent and, what’s more, the minister for the National Institute of Women was absent. According to Indyra Mendoza, feminist and director of Red Lésbica Cattrachas: “In Honduras, it is easier to change an article of the constitution than to change an article of the penal code.”

Claudia Herrmannsdörfer, feminist attorney and coordinator of Equipo Juridico por los Derechos Humanos (Legal Team for Human Rights) and executive board member of the Centro de Derechos de la Mujer, explains:

This was more than an amendment, it is an unconstitutional reform of the constitution cementing an “articulo pétreo” (rock-solid article, common in post–Cold War Central America) . . . These congressmen trampled over the people’s sovereignty to reform the future . . . It has been a very big blow to our movement, because there is little recourse for appeal and it blocks any possibility for change in the future.

Astrid Ramos, attorney for Red Lésbica Cattrachas, explains the blink-and-you-missed-it congressional procedures that provided virtually no opportunity for public input, shockingly publishing the final result of the reform on the day of the vote, something rare in Honduras: “The constitutional reforms on Article 67 and 112 were approved on January 21 during one of the last sessions of the third legislature; the reform was published the next day, on January 22, in the official gazette (government national paper). Just days later, on January 25, the ratification of the reform was voted on January 28 and published in the gazette the same day [and thus] integrated in our constitution.” Dissent by the smaller parties was ignored.

Prohibitions on abortion and gay marriage already exist in Honduras; the amendments are no great departure from the status quo. Where they mark a victory for the Right, however, is in their consolidation of these prohibitions. From now on, a 75 percent majority in Congress will be required to overturn them. In a conservative country where links to corruption among its political and religious elites are part of everyday life, obtaining such a majority promises to be difficult and constitutes an extremely high benchmark for change — only a vote for a political trial of the president requires that many votes.

Activists and attorneys on the ground consider this a desperate move by conservatives, as a precautionary measure, perhaps in light of the January vote in Argentina’s congress to approve women’s reproductive rights. At the same time, the move should be understood as an offensive of homegrown conservatism emboldened by an oligarchic state of religious fundamentalists and capitalists finding common ground.

“We knew there was going to be a rebound effect when we learned about Argentina; the same happened after Spain passed marriage equality. What we did not know was that it would happen so fast. This was planned by the Nationalist Party; in fact, they are prohibiting what was already prohibited — to gain political and monetary support from ultraconservatives in Opus Dei . . . and to win over the evangelicals for votes in the upcoming elections,” says Mendoza.

For others, right-wing ideologues in Honduras are looking less at what’s taking place in Argentina and more at what is happening in the United States. For Fonseca, the US right has long made use of Honduras as a “laboratory” to test out its ideas and policies. This happens in an organized fashion, with right-wing American groups traveling to Honduras and meeting with the president and other branches of government to promote their agenda. What cannot yet be achieved in the United States has found fertile ground in Honduras.

The move should also be understood as part of a cynical retooling of human rights discourse. For example, the Right has made use of article 4.1 of the OAS American Convention on Human Rights in its campaign to criminalize abortion. Yet their narrow and skewed interpretation of the article willfully ignores the ruling of Artavia Murillo et al. v. Costa Rica, which makes explicit that an “embryo should not be understood as a person for uses of this article.” It goes without saying that the Honduran government fails to acknowledge the full context for the existence of international human rights norms and for their responsible adherence, nor for any of the specific amendments that call for justice for women and LGBT communities.

In Honduras, it seems that only zygotes have the right to life, while women, girls, and LGBT people continue to face violence under the regime of Juan Orlando Hernández. According to the Violence Observatory of the Red Lésbica Cattrachas, thirty-two women have already been killed this year, and 119 transgender women have been killed since 2009. These femicides are rarely investigated, let alone prosecuted, and so perpetrators enjoy a system of near-total impunity. As lawmakers utilize the language of human rights to “protect” the unborn, their hypocrisy is increasingly hard to swallow, especially during a pandemic and after two major hurricanes have destroyed much of the country, making it even harder for the working poor who are still living in makeshift shacks along the main highways.

A Conservative Onslaught

Heteropatriarchal religious fundamentalism is wreaking havoc all over Latin America — and indeed further north — and Honduras is no exception. After a century-long relationship of exploitation, it’s no surprise that Honduran conservative leaders continue to look to the almighty United States as a model for right-wing politics; Mike Pence’s brand of homophobia is a particular inspiration. International evangelical organizations help propagate religious fundamentalism.

In Honduras, where organized religion has a strong grip on everyday life, the people are caught between evangelical Christianity — embodied in the Confraternity of Evangelical Christian Churches that have made the fight against LGBT rights their banner cause — and Opus Dei, a very conservative, hierarchical sect within the Catholic Church that has made opposition to reproductive rights their rallying cry.

Opus Dei is also closely associated with the Liberal Party. Despite some progressive efforts among religious communities, the overall structure of organized religion has coalesced against reproductive rights and LGBT communities in the country. For instance, fundamentalist forces have also opposed the morning after pill, sex education in schools, and the separation of church and state; under president Juan Orlando Hernández, by law, prayer must happen before state acts, and the police, the military, and even public schools must hold prayer at the beginning of each workday.

Despite the conservative onslaught, women’s and LGBT groups continue to organize. Campaigns for sexual and reproductive rights and LGBT rights have led to bottom-up grassroots organizing efforts involving new generations of younger women and the growing transgender movements. There have also been new tactics utilizing strategic litigation, constitutional challenges, and new proposals for how to usher in the new era of feminist demands. The Argentinian success for sexual and reproductive rights was a beacon that reverberated across the region and the continent — in Honduras, young women celebrated by donning the emblematic green scarf in celebration and in protest. It symbolized hope from the bottom up.

What is clear to feminists and organizers on the ground is that Nationalist legislators have manipulated and mangled the constitution at will. Nationalist leaders, among the most corrupt in Latin America, have lost their ability to offer any other policy other than one modeled after Donald Trump’s legacy in the United States — disruption, corruption, extreme macho bullying, and lunacy.

The Murder of Keyla Martínez

It was the case for nursing student Keyla Martínez, arrested on February 6 for violating the pandemic curfew along with other working people. (Under cover of the pandemic, Juan Orlando Hernández has suspended many civil liberties.) When she arrived to the hospital the next day, she was dead; an autopsy revealed she died of mechanical asphyxia.

Since her murder, as many as twenty-five other women have come out to say that they had also been arrested, robbed, and sexually abused by the police in La Esperanza. Women’s groups and feminists are sure Keyla’s death came at the hands of the police, and her case has become emblematic of the rampant impunity of the state apparatus. It is up to protestors to continue to push for due diligence.

Like the recent Hurricane Iota, the last eleven years of Nationalist Party rule have torn through existing human rights and women’s rights and have meant complete devastation for LGBT communities. Caravans of women, children, and LGBT people are fleeing the country.

While the state continues to entrench sanctimonious religious values, women and trans people continue to face violence and death with little protection. The 2009 coup d’état, multiple electoral fraudulent elections, and so many murders have taught women and trans people that their only choice is to continue to fight for justice, and to be as creative as possible. Feminists and LGBT communities are gearing up to resist once more, but with these congressional reforms, the road ahead just got even harder.

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Suyapa Portillo is associate professor of Chicana/o-Latina/o Transnational Studies at Pitzer College and a member of the Intercollegiate Department of Chicano/a-Latino/a Studies at the Claremont Colleges. She is author of Roots of Resistance: A Story of Gender, Race, and Labor on the North Coast of Honduras, which focuses on the working-class culture of resistance in Honduras.

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