By JAMIE L. MANSON and MANUELA TIRONI
As we observe Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it is critical that we acknowledge the ongoing pandemic of violence against women and girls across the globe. Nearly one in five women in the United States has experienced rape or attempted rape. The statistics are similar worldwide, with one in three women having experienced physical or sexual violence—mostly by an intimate partner.
As we continue the fight to prevent sexual violence, we also need to advocate for essential reproductive health care and services for survivors of sexual assault. This includes timely access to emergency contraception, which until recently was not available to women and girls living in Honduras.
Honduras is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, with high rates of child sexual violence, femicide, and violence against women. The United Nations estimates that the number of unsafe abortions in Honduras is between 51,000 and 82,000. These figures, coupled with the thousands of women hospitalized in the country for abortion complications, further prove the desperate need for emergency contraception.
Last month, on International Women’s Day, President Xiomara Castro of Honduras made history by legalizing emergency contraceptives, known locally as “PAE” (píldora anticonceptiva de emergencia)—proving that when women are put in positions of power, they’re more likely to make decisions that protect and empower their communities.
President Castro pushed through the misinformation and pressure from anti-choice Catholics —who, while loud, remain a minority— and took bold action for the people of Honduras. Prior to this historic move, Honduras was the only country in Latin America with both a total ban on abortion and a partial ban on emergency contraception.
As proud Catholics, we are thrilled to see President Castro fighting for our values and the global effort to uphold access to emergency contraception, medical abortion, and the full spectrum of reproductive health choices. There are many misconceptions about what Catholics believe about sexual health and reproductive rights, but the truth is, the views of the church hierarchy are wildly out of step with those of the people they claim to lead. Guided by our faith-formed consciences and Catholic teaching on social justice and human dignity, the vast majority of Catholics support the right to reproductive freedom.
For more than a dozen years before the legalization of PAE, even sexual assault survivors in Honduras were denied access to it. When the ban was partially lifted last December, sexual assault survivors were still required to report their assaults to authorities in order to access emergency contraception.
This unconscionable requirement left countless people without aftercare—increasing their risk of violence-induced pregnancies and damage to their mental health. While in many countries like the U.S., rape is considered the most under-reported crime, in Honduras, where there is a 95 percent impunity rate for sexual violence and femicides, a climate of fear and shame paired with a lack of protocol for caring for victims has resulted in only 10 percent of sexual assault cases being reported.
Despite these dire circumstances, local religious authorities in Honduras attempted to sow doubt about the need for and efficacy of emergency contraception. They also falsely conflated emergency contraceptives with medical abortion, when in reality, the two forms of medication serve entirely different purposes. Emergency contraception blocks ovulation and prevents a pregnancy from happening in the first place; it categorically does not disrupt or terminate an existing pregnancy.
This misinformation is particularly egregious since organizations like the Catholic Health Association have unequivocally stated that emergency contraception is not an abortifacient and, in fact, should be available to all survivors of sexual assault. Even some Roman Catholic bishops have agreed to offer Plan B to rape victims at their Catholic hospitals.
Legalizing emergency contraception is a tremendous step forward, but Honduras has a long way to go in order to create an equitable society where all people, including victims of sexual assault, are treated as first-class citizens. And advocates in Honduras are not alone in this fight. Violence knows no borders, so all across the Americas we must do more to protect our communities and put an end to sexual violence, and oppressive bans on our civil liberties and reproductive freedoms.
We must demand our elected officials lead and create policies with empathy, dignity, and respect. The time for change is now.
Jamie L. Manson is the president of Catholics for Choice. Twitter: @jamielmanson
Manuela Tironi is a criminal defense lawyer and activist. Twitter: @ManuTironi