Open but intolerant

Panama bans adoption by same-sex couples.

Panama has been characterised as a country open to migration, economic freedom and globalisation, standing out as one of the most dynamic economies in the region. However, on the subject of human rights, it adopts a very conservative attitude that keeps it lagging behind other countries, including its neighbours, Costa Rica and Colombia, which have made important advances in the recognition of LGBTIQ+ rights.

A local human rights lawyer observed, “Despite being a country of transit, open to trade and supposedly to differences, in recent years Panama has been impacted by conservative religious groups within the Catholic Church, as well as evangelicals who have somehow substituted the State in the poorest communities.”

“Despite being a country of transit, open to trade and supposedly to differences, in recent years Panama has been impacted by conservative religious groups.”

Human rights lawyer, Panama

On 3 March 2021 Panama passed a law (“Law n.120”) which bars adoption by same-sex couples. This initiative was presented by Corina Cano, a well-known deputy and supporter of the Pro-Life movement, which strongly opposes the recognition of LGBTIQ+ rights. The supporters of Law n.120 argue that it aims to protect children and teenagers from unnecessary separation from their biological family. Furthermore, the law defines eligible couples as married “different sex couples”.

A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) said that the law was inconsistent with the principle of the best interests of the child as it categorically barred children from being adopted into loving and supportive families. In addition, HRW called on Panama’s President Laurentino Cortizo to ban the entry into force of the law. However, Cortizo has already said that he only recognises marriage between a man and a woman, and in his 20 months of government has not shown any signs of changing his position.

A leading authority on family law in Panama did not expect the law to be changed, “There is no possibility of a legal reform that allows homosexuals to adopt children in Panama. Likewise, it has been impossible to pass modern legislation to provide sexual and reproductive health education in schools. In the National Assembly there is not a single deputy who openly supports the LGBTIQ+ community.”

“In the National Assembly there is not a single deputy who openly supports the LGBTIQ+ community.”

Family law expert, Panama

Panamanian society is divided over the issue, but is mostly conservative and same sex marriages are not yet legal in the country. Since 2016, the Supreme Court of Panama is yet to rule over three same sex Panamanian couples which married outside the country and have appealed against the existing family law which would de facto allow same sex marriage in the country. The Supreme Court has failed to pay attention at the verdict of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which has ruled, through an advisory opinion, that the prohibition of equal marriage violated the American Convention on Human Rights.

Local lawyers argue that the passing of Law n.120 should have waited until the aforementioned resolution of the Supreme Court over same sex marriages. Legal experts point at the contradiction that the law would leave same sex couples in limbo in the event that the Supreme Court ruled in favour of legalising same sex marriages. At the same time, Panamanian legal experts mostly agree that LGBTIQ+ rights should be defined in a constitutional reform which would emerge from a profound political debate instead of relying on judicial decisions.

The protest movement of the LGBTIQ+ community is increasingly visible in Panama, but it still has a long way to go to reduce prejudice, discrimination and rejection of a wide sector of the population and there is no change in sight in the short term nor political will to address the issue.

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