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Guatemalan congress to debate contradicting abortion bills

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Guatemala City (AFP)

Guatemalan legislators are to start a confusing debate on Tuesday over two bills proposing changes to the country's strict abortion laws: one looking to loosen them and the other to toughen them.

Currently, abortion is only allowed in the conservative Catholic-majority Central American country if a mother's life is in danger.

A bill sponsored by the leftist Convergencia opposition party wants to expand that to allow underage girls that have been the victims of sexual abuse to abort in the first 12 weeks.

But backed by the powerful Catholic and Evangelical churches in the country, some 20,000 people took to the streets on Sunday to oppose such a move, chanting in favor of "life and the family."

A second bill proposed by another opposition senator, Fernando Linares, aims to increase punishments for abortion and has been criticized by feminist groups fearful it would criminalize miscarriages.

The wording of Linares's bill is ambiguous, particularly with relation to life-saving abortions and miscarriages.

"It's a setback to the rights women have won," Ada Valenzuela from the National Union of Guatemalan Women told AFP.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), says Linares's "bill could lead to absurd and discriminatory outcomes.

"A woman recovering from a miscarriage could find herself interrogated by law enforcement about the loss of her pregnancy."

An HRW article on the subject last week quoted a study that claims "as many as 30 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage early in gestation, and at least 10 percent of clinically recognized pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion."

What is uncertain, though, is how the two contradicting bills will be debated given that both cannot be adopted.

The Convergencia bill is further down the line in Guatemala's legislative process and an outcome on its adoption should be known by the end of the week.

But there's no telling when a decision on the Linares bill will be taken.

It's not just women worrying about the consequences of the Linares bill, as it also aims to change laws relating to the LGBT community.

It expressly prohibits same-sex marriage and defines family as being limited to a father, mother and children.

It also defines marriage as between people who are men and women by birth, potentially discriminating against the transgender community.

"If Congress passes this bill, it will send the message that women and LGBT people are second-class citizens in Guatemala," said Vivanco.

"The proposal lacks basic common sense and humanity and could even turn women and girls who miscarry into criminals."

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