Does She Really Support Reproductive Rights? Mixed Messages from Brazil’s First Female President

At the recent Rio+20 summit, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff  joined with other women heads of state in signing a “call to action” in support of the right of women to sexual and reproductive health. It was a true “photo-op” moment generating plenty of international headlines for Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president, and the other high-profile leaders.

But for those of us actively working for women’s reproductive health rights in Brazil, it was more of an “Oh, really?” moment.

Because we could see what probably was coming. Despite her backing of the call to action, Rousseff ended up signing onto the final document produced at Rio+20 — a compromise plan that made no mention at all of women’s reproductive rights and that has since been roundly criticized for selling out not only women but Mother Earth herself.

Only a few months ago, Rousseff used her presidential power to enact a controversial measure establishing a national pregnancy registry in Brazil. Far from increasing women’s reproductive rights, the registry posed a genuine threat to those rights.

Fortunately, in response to an intense campaign by feminist and reproductive rights advocates, Brazil’s national lawmakers decided to let the registry law die for lack of congressional approval, thereby showing a true commitment to women’s human rights.

The controversial law, Provisional Measure 557, had been enacted by Rousseff last December, when the country was focused more on the holidays than on politics. Provisionary measures such as PM 557 are a way for Brazilian presidents to enact laws without congressional authorization and are intended for urgent matters.

On the surface, PM 557 did seem to address an undeniably urgent matter, that of Brazil’s high maternal mortality rate. It required all pregnant women to register their pregnancies with the state, ostensibly to ensure better access to quality maternal care.

But the reality would have been far more complicated. A national registry of pregnant women — which one critic rightly termed “Kafkaesque” — would have allowed the government to monitor and control women’s reproductive choices. Even after a provision on the rights of the unborn had been withdrawn, the legislation continued to disregard women’s human rights, such as the right to privacy and confidentiality of health information. It still raised many concerns. Once a woman registered her pregnancy, would she have been legally obligated to have the child? What about pregnancies ending in miscarriage or an abortion? Would women have faced legal consequences? If the pregnancy endangered a woman’s life or was the result of rape, would women get information on where to get legally permitted abortions?

Brazilian law permits abortion, but only in cases of rape or if the woman’s life is at risk. In all likelihood, the registry would have led to a state system of surveillance and control of women’s reproductive lives, with the potential added effect of increasing the persecution of women and criminalization of abortion.

Provisional measures in Brazil must be debated and approved by Congress to remain in effect; otherwise, they expire by a set date. In the case of PM 557, the deadline was May 31. That gave feminist, reproductive rights and human rights activists several months to sound the alarm — and we did.

In addition to meeting with members of Congress, advocates met with members of national health councils and other policymakers. Organizations joining forces to protest the registry law included Ipas, CFEMEA, AMB, Rede Feminista de Saude, Articulacão Nacional de Muheres Negras, Sexuality Policy Watch/ABIA, and the Brazilian Federation of OB/GYNs, Febrasgo. We also mounted an aggressive campaign through social media outlets; mainstream media paid almost no attention to the issue until defeat of the registry seemed certain.

Now that this outrageous measure has been put to rest, women in Brazil will be spared the humiliating obligation of standing in line to register a pregnancy. But important challenges remain, and the disappointing outcome of Rio+20 puts them into stark relief. Will Rousseff and Brazil’s other leaders summon up the will to truly stand up for women’s rights?  Will they tackle one of the true solutions to high maternal mortality: decriminalization of abortion and measures that could effectively reduce deaths related to unsafe abortions? Or will they spend time on measures such as the proposed “fetal rights” bill?

Here’s hoping they will learn a lesson from the defeat of PM 557:  laws affecting women’s reproductive health should be approached with a human rights perspective, with due participation from women themselves and with transparency in the political process.

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