The Guatemalan military on Thursday intercepted a ship from the Dutch-based organization Women on Waves, which offers free reproductive health services for women in international waters so that they can bypass harsh local laws on abortion.
In an official statement, the country’s military said that it was ordered by President Jimmy Morales to prevent the organization from carrying out its activities in Guatemala. It also added that it would defend “human life and the laws of our country.” The military said that activists could not go ashore because they had not declared a motive for their visit to Guatemala.
The boat was docked in the southern pacific city of San Jose on Wednesday. Women on Waves argue they have a permit to sail in Guatemalan waters and that the military is illegally detaining the boat.
The group, which aims to prevent unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortions, says that abortions are needed for health reasons – particularly in relation to preventing the Zika virus' spread. It added that the ban is “obstructing a lawful protest against the state's restrictions on the Guatemalan women's right to safe abortion.”
In Guatemala – like many Latin American countries with Catholic roots – abortion is illegal unless the mother's life is deemed to be at risk. Women on Waves say that around 65,000 illegal and unsafe abortions happen in the country every year, the third highest cause of maternal death in the country.
The group is made up of a team of activists and doctors from around the world, who planned to operate in Guatemala for five days and transport women in a dinghy to the “abortion boat” located 12 miles off the country’s mainland. According to the group’s website, the ship can provide women with free abortions up until 10 weeks of pregnancy.
The group has carried other out other missions in Poland, Ireland and Morocco and is commonly met by opposition protests from religious groups. In Guatemala, it was no different. Catholic groups were waiting at the dock and broke up a press conference organized by the activists.
“Why don't you go to the Netherlands to kill children?” yelled a Guatemalan grandmother at the ship’s crew. Guatemalan lawmaker Raul Romero had earlier referred to the vessel as “the death boat.”
Women on Waves is also urging the Guatemalan government to remove abortion from the country’s penal code and improve access to free and safe abortions, sexual education and contraception. Guatemalan women also face high rates of violence and femicide.