SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — For the first time in nearly a century, Puerto Rico overhauled a series of laws that regulate rights in the U.S. territory including marriage, abortion and property ownership without having held any public hearings.
Gov. Wanda Vázquez on Monday night signed into law a new civil code that replaces the one created in 1930 and contains more than 130 amendments, raising concerns that some could lead to certain loopholes in what is considered Puerto Rico’s second most important legal document after its Constitution.
“We will never have a civil code with 100% consensus,” she said as she defended the new code, adding there will always be room to improve or change it.
Vázquez said she consulted numerous experts including judges and professors as part of an effort that began more than 20 years ago.
Critics agree that it was time to revise and modernize the civil code, but said legislators should have held public hearings before it was approved. One of the biggest concerns for some is that while the new code upholds the right to have an abortion in Puerto Rico, it also for the first time recognizes the rights of a fetus.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Why was that clause included? What’s the final intention?’” said Edgardo Román, president of Puerto Rico’s Bar Association, adding that in the future, it could be used to question the legality of abortion or in cases where a mother might be in a coma or incapacitated in some way.
Meanwhile, the island’s LGBTQ community in part decried what it described as obscure and contradicting language regarding the ongoing right to change one’s gender on their birth certificate.
Human rights activist Pedro Julio Serrano said he expects a flurry of lawsuits over the new civil code: “They wanted to satisfy God and the devil, and they ended up making no one happy.”
The island’s House of Representatives had approved some 70 amendments alone that Román said were adopted to promote the conservative vision of various religious groups. The Senate then introduced more than 60 new amendments.
Vázquez said she doesn’t believe the civil code violates the rights of anyone and that it would go into effect in 180 days. Román, however, wants to delay implementation of it to give attorneys and others time to read and understand all the changes.
Among those changes are that couples getting a divorce no longer have to justify their decision in front of a judge and inheritors are not responsible for the debts or obligations of those who died.