Brazil might finally decriminalize abortion

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On August 9, the Argentinian Senate voted against a law that would have legalized abortion. Just 57 days earlier, the country’s House of Representatives had approved the law, marking a major landmark for one of the many South American countries in which abortion is still illegal. But while Argentina ultimately failed to legalize abortion, it looks like Brazil, the biggest country in South America, may finally be making strides toward doing so.

In Brazil, abortion is currently only legal in cases of rape, when the pregnancy poses a major threat to the woman’s life, or in cases of anencephaly in the fetus. If Brazilian women pursue abortions for any other reasons, they can be incarcerated for up to three years. In March of 2017, Brazil’s left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) filed a motion before the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the remaining articles in the Brazilian Penal Code that criminalize abortion. Finally, on August 3 and 6 of this year, a public hearing was held to discuss the possibility of decriminalizing abortion altogether.

It is Brazilian legal protocol for Supreme Court justices to be randomly assigned as the reporting justice for any given case. Supreme Court Justice Rosa Weber — one of just two female justices on the Brazilian Supreme Court, who previously voted in favor of allowing abortion in cases of anencephaly in the fetus in 2012 — was appointed as the reporting justice for this case. Weber not only called the recent public hearing, but also invited 53 experts, ranging from doctors to lawyers to representatives from Brazilian and international NGOs, to testify and help give the Supreme Court justices more information before making such an important decision.

At the hearing, some of the experts present pointed out that research has shown women will seek abortions if they need them whether the procedure is legal or not. The doctors who testified as well as the health minister specifically pointed to data that shows one in five Brazilian women has interrupted a pregnancy by the age of 40. Research also shows that 503,000 Brazilian women still have abortions in the country every year, only 1 percent of which fall into the now-legal categories. Some of the representatives from international organizations also noted that ever since Uruguay legalized abortion, the number of procedures has only decreased in the nation.

Experts at the hearing also pointed out that not only do women seek abortions no matter their legality, but when they do seek them in countries in which they are illegal, they face higher risks and consequences from those procedures. Four women die every day in Brazil due to abortion complications; complications that in turn generate a cost to an already underfunded public health system.

The women who face lethal consequences are disproportionately low-income, uneducated women of color: black Brazilian women are 2,5 times more likely than their white counterparts to die due to consequences from abortions. Take the case of 30-year-old Ingriane Barbosa, a black mother of three. When faced with a fourth pregnancy, Barbosa opted to have an abortion. The father of the child had left Barbosa and she lacked support from any other family or friends. Barbosa bled for three days after the unsafe, illegal procedure, but refused to go to the hospital out of fear of getting arrested. When she finally sought medical treatment, it was too late: she died a week later.

Of course, some religious groups also spoke in favor of maintaining the criminalization of abortion. During the hearings, organizations such as the Liberal Institute of São Paulo, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), and General Convention of the Assemblies of God in Brazil (CGADB) questioned the veracity of the data pro-choice individuals had presented and contended that the rights of fetuses, which can’t defend themselves in court, should also be taken into consideration. Some pro-life individuals present even argued that the case shouldn’t even be within the scope of the legal system, and by deliberating it the Supreme Court was overstepping its boundaries.

Now that she has listened to these experts’ and other concerned parties’ testimonies, Weber is responsible for writing a report and then requesting that the court appoint a date for the hearing. She has no deadline for doing so, but when the request is eventually accepted by the president of the Supreme Court, Dias Toffoli, Weber and the eleven other justices must cast their votes. Any of these justices can ask for more time to review the case, so it could ultimately be a few months or even years before a verdict is reached in this case.

Should the Supreme Court vote to maintain the criminalization of abortion at that time, advocates can take another path to decriminalize abortion: They can attempt to pass a bill in Congress. In 2015, Congressman Jean Wyllys proposed a bill to legalize abortion, but the mostly male, conservative members of Congress did not even vote on the bill. Right now, this bill is in the hands of a congressman who is deliberately delaying his report in order in order to postpone a vote. Should another bill on the same subject matter be introduced, it would still end up in the hands of this same reporting congressman. In order to move this legislation forward, civilians would need to put Congress under enormous pressure. Even if that should work and the bill get approved in Congress, then senators and the president would still need to approve it before it became law.     

Ultimately, legalizing abortion is a feminist issue; giving women of of all socioeconomic classes the ability to choose what happens to their own bodies is a matter of equality. Neither the church nor state should be able to meddle with women’s reproductive rights, and people shouldn’t be arrested or even die because they went ahead and decided to make a decision about what to do with their own uteruses. Only time will tell how the Brazilian Supreme Court rules on this matter, but civilians and advocates all of the world can make their voices heard and demand justice now.

More articles by Category: Feminism, Health
More articles by Tag: Abortion, South & Central America, Law, Reproductive rights



Mafê Souza
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