The Honduras Supreme Court has cemented the fate of women trying to avoid unintended pregnancy–whether from unprotected sex, contraceptive failure, or rape–by upholding what is currently the strictest ban on emergency contraception in the world. The absolute ban would criminalize the sale, distribution, and use of the “morning-after pill,” a contraceptive method that prevents pregnancy, by imposing punishment for offenders equal to that of obtaining or performing an abortion, which in Honduras is completely restricted. Emergency contraception is just that: contraception.
Anti-choice forces have, however, succeeded in confusing the method with an abortifacient despite a wealth of medical studies from around the globe that have shown it to be a safe, effective method of birth control which simply uses a higher dose of the same medication in typical birth control pills, and works by preventing an egg from being fertilized.
According to the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), currently, anyone who performs an abortion in Honduras can be sentenced anywhere from three to 10 years in prison, depending on if the woman consents or if violence and intimidation is a factor. Women who seek an abortion face three to six years in prison. With the court’s decision, simply being caught with an emergency contraceptive pill would be considered an abortion attempt.
These extreme bans on emergency contraception have been widely recognized by international and regional human rights bodies, like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as violations of a woman’s ability to exercise her fundamental rights.
The Honduran Congress first passed the ban on EC in 2009, and then-President José Manuel Zelaya vetoed it a month afterward, immediately making the issue a matter for Supreme Court review. However, following the country’s June 2009 coup d’état, the de facto minister of health issued an administrative regulation in October 2009 banning emergency contraception, despite not yet having a ruling from the Supreme Court that would allow criminal enforcement of the ban. Nearly three years after the ban was vetoed by President Zelaya, today’s ruling now allows the Honduran Congress to impose the previously proposed criminal punishments on any medical professionals who distribute and sell emergency contraception and any woman who uses or attempts to use the medication to prevent an unintended pregnancy.
Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church has been heavily involved in limiting women’s reproductive rights and their options for essential health care. According to LatinoPoliticsBlog.com, “several prominent members of the de facto government in Honduras are members of the elitist, ultra-conservative Catholic Opus Dei movement, who were upset that ousted President Zelaya vetoed the ban” on emergency contraception.
According to CRR, up to half of sexually-active young women in Honduras, face obstacles to obtaining modern contraceptives — a statistic that is much higher for single women than married women and especially high among adolescent women. And LatinoPoliticsBlog.com notes that:
Honduras has the highest adolescent birthrate in Central America, and one half of women 20-24 give birth by the age of 20. Moreover, some 70% of the population lives in poverty and 40% of those live in extreme poverty. Early motherhood has been linked to extended poverty, higher infant mortality, and often perpetuates a lower standard of living as mothers have difficulty resuming school and focusing on occupational advancement. The availability of birth control and the morning after pill would help prevent unwanted pregnancies and allow Honduran women the opportunity to gain more education to better position themselves to provide for their families.
Access to emergency contraception can be a critical tool in preventing unwanted pregnancies — especially in countries where regular birth control can be difficult to obtain. But Women’s health, rights, and agency are not on the agenda of the church or the Honduran government.
“By banning and criminalizing emergency contraception, Honduras is telling the world it would rather imprison the women of its country than provide them with safe and effective birth control,” said Luisa Cabal, director of international legal programs at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
“Today’s decision from the Honduras Supreme Court blatantly disregards women’s fundamental reproductive rights and completely ignores the respected medical opinion of experts around the globe. It will cause significant harm in the lives countless women and doctors across the country.”
The irony of the coup government cracking down on women’s rights, states LatinoPoliticsBlog.com “is that it has sold itself as a defender of freedom.”
It certainly is a paradox for the de facto government to not allow women some privilege in exercising reproductive freedom and basic civil liberties, while presenting itself as democratic and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to top US lobbyist and PR firms to build them an image that purports to be respectful of the rule of law. Secretary Clinton should seriously explore these rights violations before blessing the results of the upcoming Honduran election.
Freedom, religious freedom, involvement of the Catholic Church hierarchy, anti-choice politicians, conservative legislators… sound familiar?