Guatemala’s Life Threatening ‘Protection Of Life And Family’ Bill Reaches Final Stages Of Approval

Having successfully passed through Congress twice, Guatemala’s controversial ‘Protection of Life and Family’ bill is scheduled to be discussed for the last time next week before it is sent to President Jimmy Morales for final approval. Introduced by 23 deputies of Congress and the Evangelical Coordinator of Guatemala in March 2017, the bill has since been criticized by numerous human rights organizations as a significant setback to Guatemala’s human rights. The preamble uses the language of positive rights, claiming to “protect the right to life, the family… and freedom of conscience and expression.” However, if passed, the law will undoubtedly have the converse effect of heavily restricting the basic rights of Guatemala’s women and LGBTQI community.

Among its many problematic provisions, the Bill significantly infringes on accessibility to safe abortions. Under s 133-39 of the Guatemalan Penal Code, all abortion procedures are already illegal except ‘therapeutic abortions’ that are necessary to save a woman’s life. The Protection of Life and Family bill seeks to further expand criminalization of abortion to include spontaneous abortions that might occur for reasons outside a woman’s control including advanced maternal age or prior miscarriages. Under these laws, women may find themselves being investigated and even imprisoned for involuntary, emergency situations.

Moreover, the Bill also restricts access to presently legal abortions by increasing the criteria that therapeutic abortions must fulfil. Consequently, women will not only face criminal punishment for spontaneous abortions but will also have greater limitations in accessing safe and legal abortion procedures. Considering 65,000 illegal abortions are practiced annually and around 20,000 women are hospitalised for abortion related complications according to the Guttmacher Institute, the Protection of Life and Family bill will only further endanger women across the country who do not have the resources for overseas abortions or private clinical services. This risk will be exacerbated by the prohibition of promoting abortion. Under this provision, providers of sexual health information and counselling services could face up to 10 years of prison, diminishing few safeguards against unsafe abortions that Guatemalan women currently have.

In addition to limiting access to safe reproductive and sexual healthcare services, the bill also discriminates heavily against the LGBTQI community. The bill proposes redefining a ‘natural family’ to solely include a mother, father, son and daughter. Moreover, it expressly gives every individual the right to ‘freedom of consciousness and expression’ such that no one should be forced to ‘accept sexual diversity as normal.’ While freedom of speech and expression are important ideals to uphold, these provisions run contrary to basic principles of equality, not only refusing to recognize diverse sexual orientations and gender identities but additionally inviting hate speech and discrimination against LGBTQI individuals.

As Americas Director at the Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, succinctly states, the Bill “lacks basic common sense and humanity and could even turn women and girls who miscarry into criminals.”  Despite proclaiming Guatemala’s ‘serious commitment’ to human rights in a report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the government has done little to defend women and LGBTQI citizens. Even the Guatemalan Human Rights Attorney’s Office made a dissatisfactory response, merely recommending that the government “avoid passing laws that attempt against individuals’ freedoms.” Ultimately, the provisions not only violate Guatemala’s international obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and International Convention on Civil and Political Rights but at a more fundamental level, they breach Guatemala’s responsibility to protect its own citizens, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Until the Bill is struck down, it will be clear to both Guatemalans and the international community that the country has only regressed in its human rights commitments.