Brazil: The Long Fight for Abortion Rights


The fight for the decriminalization
of abortion has lost another battle in Latin America. After a 17
year campaign for a bill that would legalize abortion,
last week the Justice and Constitution Committee of the Brazilian Congress
voted 57 to 4 against the bill. This overwhelming rejection to
protect women’s lives is certainly discouraging.

According to Brazil’s
Penal Code, abortion is only legally allowed under two circumstances:
to save the woman’s life and in cases of rape. The punishment for
performing illegal abortions ranges from one to four years imprisonment.
However, as it is common practice in Latin American countries, getting
the authorization to have an abortion when the pregnant woman’s life
is at risk is usually difficult, although it is legal.

The draft bill voted
down last week would have excluded abortion from the Penal Code.
Although this proposal had been stuck in the Congress since 1991, parliamentarians
from the ruling party decided to get the debate back on track given
the Health Minister’s public statement in favor of legalizing abortion
last year. This started a fierce campaign from supporters and opponents
of the decriminalization of abortion.

Earlier this year Ipas
Brazil launched the campaign "Does criminalizing abortion solve the
problem? Think about it,"
that included a video
seeking "to stimulate debate about the fairness of the Brazilian abortion
law." The video certainly demonstrates that ordinary Brazilian people
have mixed feelings or are dubious on whether a woman who has an abortion deserves to go to jail, despite opposing abortion itself. Ipas’ concern on this issue
was particularly grounded in the findings of a research they conducted with the University
of Rio de Janeiro on the impact of unsafe abortion in Brazil. The research
found that every year 250,000 women and girls are hospitalized at public
health facilities due to complications related to induced abortions.
The study suggests that this figure actually means that approximately
a million clandestine abortions occur in the country in a year, as for
every woman that is hospitalized there are four other ones that do not
need or do not look for medical attention and hence go unreported.

A Shadow Report submitted last year by the Center for Reproductive
Rights to the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
against Women (CEDAW) pointed out that "In
Brazil alone, the WHO [World Health Organization] calculates that 8,700
women die from complications related to childbirth and pregnancy every
year." The report highlights the fact that this situation is
even more serious because mortality rates are considerably higher "among
black, indigenous, and single women living in the poorest regions of
Brazil."

According to UNFPA’s
2007 State of World Population report, the maternal mortality rate in Brazil is estimated
to be 260 deaths for every 100,000 live births, the third highest in
South America after Bolivia and Peru. For the CEDAW Committee this indicates "precarious socio-economic
conditions, low levels of information and education, family dynamics
associated with domestic violence and particularly difficult access
to quality health services."

However, despite of the
shocking indicators, little could be done to persuade a significant number
of parliamentarians to vote for decriminalizing abortion. The
pressure from well-organized conservative movements and the church was
overwhelming and so intense that some parliamentarians who were against
the draft bill even carried photos of aborted and mutilated fetuses hanging
from their necks during the hearing and voting process. Even the Pope’s
visit to Brazil in 2007 became an important stage for anti-choice campaigners to advocate against the bill. Benedict XVI played his role as
the head of the church and during his visit urged Brazilians to respect
life beginning at conception. For anti-choicers, having the Pope as their advocate was priceless in a country with the largest Catholic population in the world!

Fortunately, in May last
year President Lula announced the implementation of a new Family Planning
Program that would include the massive delivery of contraceptive methods
and a large educational campaign all over the country. The Health
Ministry has already started the free distribution of condoms in secondary
public schools following the launch of the government’s own condoms
manufacturer company. Let’s hope that the Family Planning Program
is fully implemented and represents the first of many steps to be taken
to counteract the legal restrictions affecting Brazilian women’s right
to reproductive freedom.

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