Takeaways from AP's report on secretive networks helping women circumvent Honduras' abortion ban
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — In remote mountain villages, urban neighborhoods, along the Caribbean coast — despite Honduras’ national abortion ban and amid suffocating social and religious opposition, women are terminating pregnancies with the help of clandestine networks seeking to make the procedure as safe as possible.
The networks use code words, aliases, encrypted messages, burner phones and other tactics to disguise their activity. Most participants don’t know one another, or any specifics beyond their role in the chain that ultimately provides information and the abortion pills endorsed by the World Health Organization.
Some Latin American countries -- Argentina, Colombia, Mexico -- are widening access to abortion, while many U.S. states are restricting it. Honduras doesn’t enforce its ban as strictly as its neighbors, but the possible punishment of up to six years in prison is a constant threat.
WHAT DOES HONDURAN LAW SAY?
Honduras’ total abortion ban dates to 1985. Previously, abortion was permitted in three instances: rape, risk to the mother or nonviability of the fetus.
After the 2009 coup d’état that removed then-President Manuel Zelaya, husband of current President Xiomara Castro, the emergency contraceptive pill was banned. It marked the start of several administrations linked to ultraconservative churches.
In 2021, an amendment to add the abortion ban directly to the constitution was adopted. The measure also increased the number of lawmakers needed to change that part of the constitution. It cannot be “repealed or modified” by other legal provisions, according to the text.
HOW DO THE NETWORKS WORK?
Activists learn tricks of the trade little by little. “Now there is less naiveté and more technology, virtual phone numbers, disappearing messages,” said an activist with 12 years of experience.
Some women seeking abortions call a hotline publicized on the internet as “La Línea.” They’re asked questions to try to confirm the request is real and not an attempt to track down activists. Later, calls are triangulated; sometimes phone chips are switched to avoid identifying numbers.
Other women learn about the networks via hushed word of mouth. Either way, women seeking abortion help are ultimately put in touch with the person who will be her guide, introduced via pseudonym.
The guide asks basic health questions, including how far along the pregnancy is, and requests that an ultrasound be sent through a secure application. Then the challenge is obtaining the pills – never referred to as medication abortions, or with their pharmaceutical names, but as ordinary objects, code names that change from group to group.
The networks often sneak misoprostol and mifepristone in from Mexico.
WHY IS THERE SO MUCH FEAR IF NO WOMEN ARE KNOWN TO BE CURRENTLY IMPRISONED?
With the law as it is, the threat of prison is always there.
Women also worry they’ll be stigmatized or shamed, sometimes by those closest to them, because of social pressures and the enormous influence of the Catholic and Protestant churches.
There are criminal consequences outside prison. Some women may be banned from leaving the country or may be unable to obtain the criminal record clearance needed for most employment.
Some activists say they received intimidating and threatening messages, sent anonymously to their phones and generally coinciding with political instability. They also say some women have fled the country over harassment and legal complaints.
The Honduras Gynecologists Association says the current legislation is inconsistent with science and leaves doctors vulnerable to accusations of violating the constitution every time they save a woman’s life.
ARE THESE KINDS OF MEDICAL ABORTIONS SAFE?
The use of the abortion pills is endorsed by the World Health Organization.
The network makes sure each woman has a guide during her abortion who can monitor how it is going remotely and respond to questions, in an attempt to make it as safe as possible.
But advocates say that forcing these abortions to take place in secret always implies risks. If there is a problem and the woman has to seek medical care, if there’s clear evidence of an abortion, doctors are obligated by law to report it to authorities.