Following outrage, Guatemalan president reverses controversial “Life and Family Protection” bill

The bill would have increased prison sentences for women seeking abortions, banned same-sex marriages, and prohibited educational institutions from teaching about sexuality and gender

March 11, 2022 by Tanya Wadhwa
On March 9, dozens of Guatemalans protested near the National Palace against the “Life and Family Protection” bill with mock coffins. Photo: Prensa Latina

On March 8, International Women’s Day, millions of women around the world took to the streets to demand dignity, equality, and freedom. On the very same day, the Guatemalan Congress approved a regressive bill that directly violated women’s rights.

The unicameral parliament of Guatemala passed the “Life and Family Protection” bill with an overwhelming majority: 101 votes in favor, 8 against, with 51 legislators absent. The bill would have increased prison sentences for women who have abortions from three years to between five and twenty-five years, and imposed penalties of up to fifty years in prison for doctors and all those who assist women in terminating pregnancies. In Guatemala, abortions are legal only when needed to save the woman’s life.

The bill also targeted the LGBTQ+ community, banning same-sex marriages by declaring marriage an institution between a man and a woman and forbidding de facto unions. Additionally, it would have prohibited educational institutions from teaching about sexuality and gender, stipulating that no sexual orientations other than heterosexuality are “normal.” The bill also specified that sexual education is exclusive to parents.

The bill was awaiting signature by far-right president Alejandro Giammattei. On Wednesday, March 9, declared “Life and Family Day” by Congress the previous day, Giammattei proclaimed in the National Palace, “This event is an invitation to unite as Guatemalans to protect life from conception until natural death.”

Giammattei reversed course on March 10. Given fierce condemnation from opposition leaders and civil society organizations that vowed to resist the bill, Giammattei asked Congress to shelve the bill through a message to the nation, or else the bill would be vetoed. The president said that the bill violated at least two international conventions ratified in Guatemala.

The decision came shortly after social movements took to the streets to protest the bill, while a group of opposition party legislators filed objections against the bill to the president of the Congress.

Opposition and citizens’ actions

In early Thursday morning, the opposition lawmakers, including both those who rejected the bill in the plenary and those who were absent, presented their objections officially before the board of directors of Congress. They stressed that the bill, which became decree after parliamentary approval, “attacks the rights of women, the equality of all men and women before the law, and freedom of belief” adding that the bill “is totally discriminatory” and “incites hatred and the criminalization of important sectors of society.”

For the second consecutive day, a group of feminists, LGBTQ activists, and members of human rights organizations demonstrated outside of Congress, demanding the annulment of the bill, deeming it an “anti-rights bill” which does not solve underlying problems such as malnutrition, rape, hate crimes, and disparities in justice, education, and health.

On March 9, social movement organizations protested near the National Palace against the bill and the declaration of Guatemala as the “Pro-Life Capital of Ibero-America”. Protesters lined up several mock coffins with names of victims of sexual violence and femicide, and several signs requesting the government’s attention towards other issues facing the country. The signs read: “In order to guarantee life, access to decent work must be created for all diverse people,” “in order to guarantee Life, economic conditions must be created that avoid forced migration”, and “in order to guarantee life, the criminalization of human rights defenders must be eliminated”.

Civil society organizations had also called for peaceful sit-ins in front of Congress and at the Constitution Plaza to demand the right to autonomy, sexual and reproductive health, and sexual expression for March 11.

National and international condemnation

Numerous national and international leaders and organizations had criticized the “Life and Family Protection” bill for further criminalizing abortions and same-sex marriage, promoting homophobia, and violating numerous other human rights.

Jordán Rodas, Guatemala’s elected human rights ombudsman, said that the measure “violates human rights and the international agreements ratified by Guatemala.” He deemed it “a setback to freedom,” and promised to challenge it.

Likewise, opposition lawmaker Lucrecia Hernández pointed out that the bill “aggravates the emotional devastation of women who suffer a miscarriage, due to the risk of being persecuted and penalized.” Hernández said that the “law stigmatizes people, discriminates and foments intolerance and hate speech and hate crimes.” She also warned that the bill imposed Christian morality by violating the freedom of belief of other religions.

Deputies Ligia Hernández Gómez, Walter Félix, Edgar Batres, Andrea Villagrán, Sonia Gutierrez, among others, also condemned the bill and called for its abrogation.

Meanwhile, the Commission for Minors and the Family of the Congress of the Republic urged the president to veto the bill, arguing that it was unconstitutional and harmful to society.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, the Americas Director of Amnesty International, criticized the law, stating “This law will not protect families or lives; it will foment hate and discrimination, putting the lives and rights of countless people at risk. It is disturbing that Guatemala’s Congress is intent on wasting time and resources on passing laws that will only compound the myriad of social problems and human rights violations that affect so many people in the country, instead of actually trying to resolve them.”

Homophobia and child pregnancy in Guatemala

According to the National Observatory of LGBTQI+ Rights, at least 32 LGBTQI+ people were murdered in Guatemala in the last year as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The situation is worsening: another nine murders have been reported so far in 2022.

The country also suffers from alarming levels of child pregnancies. According to official data, last year 2,041 girls under 14 years of age gave birth, and the country registered over 65,000 pregnancies in girls and adolescents between 10 and 19 years of age.

As Guevara-Rosas stressed: “access to legal abortion and comprehensive sexuality education are not only human rights, but also critical policy tools for addressing adolescent pregnancies, as well as gender-based violence and discrimination,” and added that “if president Giammattei wants to tackle these issues, and ensure his government complies with its human rights obligations, he must veto this indefensible bill.”