Latin American abortion rights activists warn against draconian US laws: ‘I have seen what is it like to live with a total ban’

Andrew Buncombe

Activists in Latin America, home to some of the world’s toughest restrictions on abortion, have denounced draconian new laws in places such as Alabama, warning they could result in the deaths of women.

Campaigners in Honduras, one of five nations in Latin America with complete bans on abortion, and which also prohibits emergency contraception, have urged the government of president Juan Orlando Hernández to make it legal for women to obtain “the day after pill”, and known by the acronym PAE.

“The emergency contraceptive pill is essential to avoid a pregnancy when you have unprotected sex, when condoms fail or in cases of rape,” said Ana Fálope, a Honduran women’s rights activist and leader of “Hablemos lo que es”, the name of the legalisation campaign, and a commonly used phrase that translates as “let’s call it what it is”.

“This emergency contraceptive is completely safe, has no side effects different from regular contraceptives, it does not affect women’s fertility and does not cause cancer. This has been indicated by the World Health Organisation, which also believes that PAE should be available to all women.”

Activists say they have been dispirited by recent events in the US, where a succession of states have passed laws banning or restricting abortion, part of a campaign to try and force the Supreme Court to reconsider 1973’s Roe v Wade ruling that gave women the right to a safe and legal abortion.

Emboldened by Donald Trump’s appointment to the top court of two conservative justices, Neal Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and the president’s own statements that the issue of abortion should be left to individual states, activists in 15 states have pushed through laws restricting abortions after six weeks, what some refer to as “heartbeat laws”.

In Alabama, meanwhile, legislators passed a near total ban on abortion earlier this month that only allows exceptions to “avoid a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother” and if the “unborn child has a lethal anomaly”.

Paula Avila Guillen, director of Latin America initiatives at the New York-based Women’s Equality Centre, told The Independent she had spent years working in countries with either total or partial bans on abortion. She said it was frustrating activists would now have to direct their fight for a woman’s right to choose to the US as well.

“I used to live in a country that had a total ban,” she said. “I have visited the women who get sent to jail. I have met the relatives of those women who die as a result of an unsafe [illegal] abortions.”

She added: “It’s frustrating. But it also gives me fire to carry on the fight. Women in the US will see what it’s like in El Salvador and Honduras. I think it will also create solidarity.”

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 obstacles to obtaining modern contraceptives.

“PAE is fundamental for all women, but it is especially important for those who have been victims of sexual violence,” said Julissa Rivas, another Honduran activist.

“We should unmask the myths and unite so that the ministry of health revokes the agreement that prohibits the trade of the PAE in our country, so that it guarantees the reproductive rights of all women in Honduras and protects them from preventable traumas as victims of a rape.”

Activists say PAE was available up until 2009, when the government of Manuel Zelaya was ousted in what he and his supporters termed a coup.

It is still available on the black market, reinforcing a class divide between middle class urban women and poorer women in rural areas with reduced access to contraception.