The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dutch vessel offering abortion services docked in Guatemala. The army seized it.

Guatemalan navy blocks Dutch 'abortion ship' (Video: Reuters)

Early Wednesday morning, a ship pulled into the port of Quetzal in San Jose, Guatemala. Depending on whom you ask, it's either a godsend or a “boat of death.”

The vessel, run by Women on Waves, travels the world offering free abortion services in places where the procedure is banned. The group brings women up to 10 weeks pregnant out to international waters, then provides them an abortion pill and a couple of hours of medical attention. (They also once sent abortion pills to Poland by drone.)

The activists say their behavior is perfectly legal, and that they have the permits to prove it. “We respect religious beliefs but this [abortion] is a fundamental right in a democracy,” spokeswoman Leticia Zevich told La Hora. (The last time they took to the sea, in 2012, they were barred from entering a Moroccan port.)

But in Guatemala, a Catholic country where abortion is banned except to save a mother's life, the outcry was ferocious, and swift. On the orders of the president, the country's army detained the ship. They also kept women from boarding. The army said it was defending “human life and the laws of our country.”

“It’s a sin. Why don’t you go to Holland and kill children over there? Go to Holland. Why come to Guatemala? We are already cursed enough in Guatemala, we don’t need more,” antiabortion activist Marleni Arias told reporters.

In a study from 2006, the Guttmacher Institute found that 65,000 illegal abortions are performed in Guatemala every year. “Our problem is the same as it is anywhere where abortion is illegal: Women seek help from people who don’t have the skills or training to perform abortions,” Carlos Vasquez, a Guatemalan gynecologist, told the Guardian. “It's incredibly dangerous.”

The question of abortion access, though, is just a small part of a larger fight about women's health. The country has some of the youngest mothers in the world (5,100 girls under 15 became pregnant in 2015), and one of the highest maternal birthrates. As the Guardian explains, “cultural practices, endemic violence and the hold of the Catholic church over decisions on reproductive health make girls in Guatemala easy prey for abuse and vulnerable to early pregnancy.” One woman, Lillian, had been raped continually by her mother's uncle. She got pregnant at 11, immediately after her first period. “I was afraid to tell my family, I believed that what had happened was my fault,” she told the paper. She didn't see a doctor until she was six months pregnant.

The country has taken some steps to protect its girls. In 2009, they passed a law defining all sex with a girl under 14 as rape. Starting in 2012, every hospital and maternity ward must report any birth by a female under 15. But these measures aren't nearly enough to address the epidemic of sexual violence and lack of health education. A 2012 Small Arms Survey found that 10 out of every 1,000 women in the country are killed, one of the highest such rates in the world. Two women are killed there every day, according to the United Nations. Nearly 25 percent of all births in Guatemala are among teenage mothers; 90 percent of pregnancies among Guatemalan girls under 14 involved relatives. Nearly one-third involved rape by a father.

And there is little sexual education, because the powerful Catholic Church is fiercely opposed. One teenager, Heidi, who lives with her parents and 11 siblings in a ramshackle house in Jalapa, told the Guardian: “I was hanging out on the street when I bumped into this guy. He told me, ‘I want to be your boyfriend’. I said yes, and then I became pregnant. That’s all I know.”