It is illegal to have an abortion in Guatemala. According to the Constitution, abortion is “the death of the product of conception at any time of pregnancy”. The law only provides for therapeutic abortion, meaning it is illegal in all cases, unless it is to save the woman’s life and all other means have been utilized. As we know, women will still have abortions, even if it is criminalized. Both women and the performer of the abortion face penalization if caught and tried; women face up to 3 years, and abortion providers up to 12 years in prison, depending on the circumstances. Nevertheless, abortion numbers in Guatemala are high, as over 1 in 4 pregnancies are unplanned. Many of these abortions are unsafe and pose a serious risk to women’s lives. In 2006, around 65,000 women had an abortion, with around 1 in 3 hospitalized due to complications.
The current regulation dates from 1973 and has been unchanged for years. In 2017, an initiative of Law 5272 was proposed. This proposed “Life and Family Protection” bill seeks to outlaw all forms of abortion, including miscarriages, as in the case of El Salvador. Moreover, it would raise the maximum sentence for having an abortion from 3 to 10 years. The Guatemalan Congress has not passed the law, but it is a latent threat. As part of this initiative, people of Guatemala risk time in prison if they inform about reproductive options, including abortion. Sex education would be prohibited, as would all possibilities for the recognition of families consisting of people of the same sex and of people of trans experience.
The law that regulates abortion if the woman’s life is in danger stems from 1973. Abortion was illegal in all forms prior to this.
In 2017, Women on Waves, a collective of doctors who travel by boat to give women access to misoprostol, or abortion pills, in international waters, attempted to dock in Guatemala. They were not allowed to anchor on Guatemalan shores by the authorities, and President Jimmy Morales said he did so to protect human life as the Constitution defines it. Instead, Women on Waves set up a hotline, and by the end of the first day, they had received over 60 phone calls.
There is no abortion debate as such; some women's organizations, many pro-choice, prefer to keep a low profile on the abortion issue, so as not to lose recognition of therapeutic abortion. Rather, they focus on smaller, legal exceptions and amendments. However, a bill that would allow for girls under the age of 14 to have the option to have an abortion due to rape or incest was nixed before even reaching the Congress floor. The Guatemalan society is very conservative, with the Catholic church maintaining a powerful force in society. This leads to a limitation in the debate about reproduction and sexuality outside of the traditional norms.
Written by: Tilla Solli for The Women's Museum of Norway
Information collected by the Women's Museum of Costa Rica
Bergløff, C. B., & Almås, G. B. (2017, March 1).Utfører aborter tross utvisning. NRK. Retrieved January 8, 2021, from https://www.nrk.no/urix/utforer-aborter-tross-utvisning-1.13403795
Cuffe, S. (2020, November 6). Planned Parenthood Just Got Officially Shut Out of Guatemala. Vice. Retrieved January 9, 2021, from https://www.vice.com/en/article/88anqg/planned-parenthood-just-got-officially-shut-out-of-guatemala
Human Rights Watch. (2020, September 9). Guatemala: Rights Official at Risk of Criminal Prosecution.Retrieved January 7, 2021, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/09/09/guatemala-rights-official-risk-criminal-prosecution
Penal Code, Decree Number 17-73, Title VII, Chapter III, Articles 133-140. (1973). The Penal Code of Guatemala. Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://reproductiverights.org/world-abortion-laws/guatemalas-abortion-provisions#english
Reuters. (2017, February 24). Guatemala blocks entry to Dutch ship providing abortions. Retrieved January 7, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-guatemala-abortion-idUSKBN163080
Singh, S., Prada, E., & Kestler, E. (2006). Induced Abortion and Unintended Pregnancy In Guatemala. International Family Planning Perspectives, 32(03), 136–145. https://doi.org/10.1363/3213606
World Health Organization. (2017, May 7). Global Abortion Policies Database, Country Profile: Guatemala. Database. Accessed January 10, 2021, from https://abortion-policies.srhr.org/country/guatemala/