GUATEMALA CITY, Oct 8 (Reuters) - Guatemala's Congress is to vote this week on a bill limiting the legal concept of family to heterosexual couples with children, a move rights groups say threatens health-care access for single parent and gay homes.
The proposed law is meant to reinforce existing legislation that prohibits gay marriage in Guatemala by explicitly saying families can only be formed by heterosexual couples.
But U.S.-based Human Rights Watch fears single parents could also be thrown into legal limbo.
"The bill ... would declare that the nearly 40 percent of Guatemalan families that are not nuclear -- consisting of father, mother and children -- are not families at all," the group said in an open letter opposing the proposal.
"Crucial health services now provided for single parents, their children, and indigenous families under a 2001 law could be taken away," it said.
Congressmen backing the measure, which could be voted on as early as Tuesday, say that human rights organizations are misinterpreting the law and that its main aim is to bar gay unions.
"There is a broad definition of family here, single mothers are families. So are widows," said Carlos Velazquez from the tiny, right wing National Unity for Change party.
"The only concept we are limiting is marriage. It is not correct for same-sex couples to marry," he said, claiming he has the backing of Catholic and evangelical Protestant churches and has collected 82,000 signatures of support since the law was proposed in 2005.
Legislators are considering the bill in response to a series of gay-friendly laws passed in Latin America in recent years allowing legally recognized civil unions in parts of Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, and the United States.
Guatemala's two presidential candidates in the Nov. 4 run-off election have said they oppose gay civil unions.
The lawmakers are scrambling to pass the bill this month after Guatemalan gay rights group Oasis announced that it will host 10 symbolic same-sex weddings in October, complete with traditional food, marimba music and the blessing of a Catholic priest.
The couples -- including a transvestite planning to wear a white wedding gown -- will sign contracts promising their lives to each other even though the union will not be recognized by the state.
"They can pass whatever laws they want, we are still going to have our civil unions," said Oasis Director Jorge Lopez.
Lopez is keeping the identity of the couples secret and will not reveal the date or place of the ceremonies, fearing violent retaliation. "Our lives are at risk," he said.
In the last three years close to 50 gay, lesbian and transgender people have been killed and often mutilated in Guatemala, one of the world's most violent nations. Hate attacks are common against highly visible transvestite prostitutes.
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