Celebrating Important Victories from the Women’s Movement in Brazil

2010 was a benchmark year for the debate around abortion legalization in Brazil. For the first time, we saw debates during a Presidential election being mostly guided by religious beliefs around sexual and reproductive rights.

2010 was a benchmark year for the debate around abortion legalization in Brazil. For the first time, we saw debates during a Presidential election being mostly guided by religious beliefs around sexual and reproductive rights, and in which abortion criminalization was seen as crucial for sustaining conservative agendas through political bargains.

The year was marked by weekly attempts by anti-choice deputies in Congress to approve anti-choice bills that would constitute major backlashes to rights already guaranteed by policies and legislation in the country. Some of these bills included measures to control women’s sexual and reproductive behaviors such as mandatory registry of pregnancies, burial of miscarriages, anti-choice messages in packaging of pregnancy tests, and preventing foreign organizations/firms from doing anything at all related to family planning.

Some key organizations and reproductive rights leaders fought hard for these bills to fail passage. For example,  Rogeria Peixinho of the Brazilian Women’s Network, a pro-choice activist and feminist leader, closely monitored anti-choice Congressional deputies’ statements, bills and strategies against women’s reproductive and sexual rights. In April 2010, at a meeting of the Labor Party’s Ethics Committee, she presented arguments in defense of women’s sexual and reproductive rights that were threatened in particular by bills and efforts undertaken by two Party deputies who were using their mandates to undermine women’s rights. Her strong efforts, in coordination with other women’s groups and networks, led to a request for them to leave the Labor Party.

On 19 May 2010, the Commission on Social Security and Family of the House of Representatives gave its approval to bill 478/07, which seeks to establish rights for embryos. The bill defines embryos not as potential life, but as human beings who are entitled to the same rights as children and adolescents as already established by law. The bill establishes a duty for family, society and State to protect the embryo’s right to life, health, development, physical integrity, access to food, as well as the right to have a family life prohibiting any form of negligence, violence, cruelty, oppression and discrimination based on sex, ethnicity, appearance, and origin, physical or mental disability. The embryo is defined as a human being beginning at the time of conception, even before reaching the uterus through natural means or following in vitro fertilization. The bill criminalizes any act that can cause the death of the embryo; the use of substances or objects that can cause an abortion; and prohibits freezing and use of embryonic material for research. If passed, the law could be invoked to criminalize women’s access to abortion care even for indications allowed in the Penal Code, such as risks to a woman’s life and in cases of rape.

In Brazil, abortion is only permitted in cases of rape or to save the life of a pregnant woman. In all other circumstances, the Penal Code penalizes women who undergo induced abortions with 1-3 years of imprisonment; physicians who provide abortions can receive up to 20 years’ imprisonment (Penal Code articles 123-128). Despite the Penal Code’s criminalization of abortion, an estimated 1,054,243 abortions occur annually.[1] Specifically, women of low economic status are greatly affected. Low-income women of Afro descent with little education and poor access to family planning services are most likely to die or suffer from complications due to unsafe abortions in the country.[2] Moreover, unsafe abortion is a major cause of maternal mortality in Brazil.

A study in 2010 presented the first results of the National Abortion Survey in Brazil (PNA, Pesquisa Nacional de Aborto). A household random sample survey was conducted of urban women between the ages of 18-39. The results showed that by the end of their reproductive years, one in five women had an abortion and that abortions were especially frequent among women aged 18 to 29 years. The use of medical drugs to induce abortion occurred in half of the situations, and post-abortion hospitalization was observed among approximately half of the women who underwent an abortion.[3]

In this very hostile environment, it is really important to highlight important gains and successful strategies to keep women’s reproductive rights duly protected in our country. Congress is now in recess and will re-open in January. Reproductive and sexual rights remain highly controversial and in dispute in Brazil, but thus far policies and legislation protecting at least some indications for legal abortion remain untouchable and in accordance with key human rights treaties and international documents as it should be in a democratic country. So we should take time now to celebrate the important victories attained in 2010, while we gear up to oppose new laws such as the embryo rights bill in 2011.

[1]  Beatriz Galli Ipas Brasil submission to the High Commissioner of Human Rights November 20 2009, , Effects of Abortion Criminalization in Brazil: lack of access, lack of good quality of health care, and increased risk of morbidity and maternal mortality. citing Adesse, Leila e Monteiro, Mario. 2007. Magnitude do aborto no Brasil: aspectos epidemiológicos e sócio-culturais. IPAS Brasil/IMS/UERJ.

[2] IPAS, citing, Ministério da Saúde. 2005. Norma Técnica para Atenção Humanizada ao Abortamento, Ministério da Saúde. Brasília, Ministério da Saúde

[3] Debora Diniz and Marcelo Medeiros. 2010. Abortion in Brazil: a household survey using the ballot box technique, Anis – Instituto de Bioética, Direitos Humanos e Gênero; [email protected]