Things That Matter

Puerto Rico’s Governor Signs New Law That Removes Many Of The Island’s Protections For Women And The LGBTQ Community

Until recently, Puerto Rico had several laws on the books that dated all the way back to when it was a Spanish colony – some 130 years ago. It was widely acknowledged that the island’s civil code needed to be updated. However, the territory’s unelected governor has just signed into law an updated civil code that many say strips away hard won civil rights protections for women and the LGBTQ community.

Gov. Wanda Vázquez signed into law updates to the civil code that put several communities at risk.

Credit: Carlos Giusti / Getty

This week, the island’s governor, Wanda Vázquez, signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the territory’s civil code – and in doing so, many say legal protections for at-risk communities have been wiped away.

The civil code hadn’t been updated since the 1930s, and many of the island’s old laws dated back to when the island was still a Spanish colony. Therefore, many experts agree that there was a need to update several laws in a way that reflects today’s modern society.

After Puerto Rico’s constitution, the island’s civil code is the most significant legal document in the territory. But the new civil code infringes upon the “human rights gains of women and LGBTQI+ people” by giving rights to fetuses, limiting people’s ability to amend their birth certificates in ways that are consistent with their gender identities and failing to “explicitly prohibit discrimination,” according to the advocacy group Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de Equidad, which loosely translates to the Committee for Equity.

Law experts and civil rights activists were quick to express concern and outrage over the move.

Everyone from legal experts and civil rights activists to Puerto Rican celebrities (including Ricky Martin) have spoken out against the update and many say some of the laws represent a historical setback. In fact, the word “discrimination” doesn’t appear in the new civil code at all.

“Puerto Rico’s governor signed into law significant revisions to the island’s civil codes that shamefully ignore the urgent calls of local advocates to explicitly include vital, comprehensive non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ residents,” said Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David in a statement. “The government has failed to carry out its primary duty of ensuring the safety and well-being of all Puerto Ricans, including LGBTQ Puerto Ricans.”

The move also comes as Puerto Rico’s LGBTQ community – especially the trans community – is under increased attack.

The new civil code, which doesn’t even mention the word discrimination, was signed into law just as the island is experiencing a severe uptick in violence against LGBTQ Puerto Ricans.

Five transgender Puerto Ricans have been killed in the U.S. commonwealth since the beginning of 2020. These include Serena Angelique Velázquez and Layla Pelaz, two trans women who were murdered in April in Humacao before their bodies were placed inside a car that was set on fire.

In what seems like a direct attack on the trans community, the new civil code prohibits people from changing the sex they were assigned at birth in their original birth certificates. That, according to the Committee for Equity, is effectively “jeopardizing the rights of trans people.”

Victoria Rodríguez-Roldán, a lawyer and the director of the nonprofit Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Justice Project at the National LGBTQ Task Force, told NBC News that “this type of action by the government, the Legislature, and the rhetoric that comes from the religious right inflicts physical harm” on trans people because it fuels “hate crimes and allows families to reject their trans relatives.”

Puerto Rico’s trans community had finally won some serious legal rights – these are being set back with the new laws.

Since 2018, transgender people in Puerto Rico have been able to correct their birth certificates to reflect their gender identities after winning a 15-year legal battle in federal court. Since then, a trans person can go to the Demographic Registry with an order from a social worker or a medical professional “who puts their credentials on the line” guaranteeing that a person lives with the gender of their preference.

The new civil code seems to roll back those protections when it says “no amendments to the sex a person was born with can be authorized in the original birth certificate,” adding that a court is the only entity with the power to “make an annotation next to the original sex designation” if a person wishes to correct their designation after birth.

The new civil code could also infringe upon the rights of women to maintain control over their health and body.

As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is subject to Supreme Court rulings – so abortion rights continue to exist on the island through the Roe v. Wade ruling.

However, the new civil code recognizes an unborn child’s “condition as a person,” adding that it’s “considered born for all the effects that are favorable to him or her.” Granting rights to an unborn child means that the government could intervene and place more obstacles later on. Several experts agree that it opens the door to start limiting abortions in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico is no stranger to such efforts. Over the past year, conservative lawmakers have tried to pass legislation to limit women’s access to abortions. Rep. María Milagros “Tata” Charbonier, president of the commission within Puerto Rico’s House in charge of creating the new civil code, supported bills looking to limit abortions. She also spearheaded an unsuccessful attempt to block same-sex marriage in Puerto Rico after the Supreme Court legalized it in 2015.

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