FEATURE: Brazilian abortion politics: An update
25 April 2016

Brazilian abortion politics: An update
by Sonia Corrêa
Sexuality Policy Watch 8 April 2016
During 2015, as previously
reported by SPW, Brazilian abortion politics continued to evolve under pressures created by the unsettled intersection of regressive policy trends (which have been gaining strength since the mid 2000’s) and the macro-political crisis which has overtaken the Brazilian res publica. Late in the year, the Zika epidemic added further chaos to this already confused situation. During March and early April 2016, the debate surrounding abortion has itself been overwhelmed by the aggravation of the political crisis. A sequence of juridical facts and media flare-ups has overshadowed the public arena and the impeachment process has begun in Congress (to read more about the Brazilian political crisis, click here).
Meanwhile, as national and international audiences are staring, stupefied, at these complex and risky dynamics, facts and processes related to abortion and reproductive rights have continued to unfold at the legislative level and in Brazilian society itself. Development are also to be reported in relation to the Zika public health crisis in what regards the state response and the debate on abortion the epidemics has triggered. This update begins by looking at what are happening in Congress and the other legislative branches. It then provides a birds eye view of the Zika epidemic, especially with regards to women’s lives. It concludes by briefly describing a new episode of criminal prosecution that occurred in Rio de Janeiro.
The legislative trenches
At the end of last year – as feminists protested on the street and the first signs of the Zika virus's effect on fetuses erupted – regressive law provisions in relation to abortion and the family were partially approved by House committees in the Brazilian congress. These were not isolated initiatives, but part of a larger package of legislative proposals that have been tables by conservative religious groups and their allies over the years and which were put back into legislative play and subject to accelerated processing after the election of the Evangelic MP Eduardo Cunha as the president of the House in February, 2015.
By December, however, Cunha was rapidly losing his political clout as investigations revealed solid evidence regarding his involvement with the Petrobrás corruption scheme. Today, however, as the political waves against the Dilma administration continue to rise, Cunha’s misbehaviors appear to have been forgotten. In the House Ethical Committee, his demotion from the presidency has 11 of 21 votes. However, supported by opposition forces, Cunha is playing a central role in the accelerated pro-impeachment moves currently underway on the Congressional chessboard.
This is certainly very bad news (in the short and long run) in terms of the various laws regarding abortion and sexuality-related matters pending final voting in the House. As feminist political scientist Flávia Birolli [1] comments, however, as powerful as Mr. Cunha may be, it is a mistake to exclusively attribute to him the responsibility for the continuous backsliding in relation to abortion, gender and sexuality in the Brazilian Congress. The congressional presence of dogmatic religious forces has a much longer history that can be traced back to the attacks made by Catholic MPs on the abortion permissions allowed by the 1940 penal code. These laws were inaugurated upon thee reopening of the Brazilian parliament following the Vargas dictatorship in 1946. More recently, during the 1986-88 Constitutional Reform (as described by Rafael de la Dehesa (2010), [2] a small Evangelical group, in alliance with the landowners caucus, blocked the inclusion of language in the constitution which would have classified sexual orientation as a non justifiable basis for discrimination.
The religious conservative block in congress has since expanded, especially during the 2000’s. In the current legislature, the Evangelical group in the House counts 196 MPs (roughly 20% of the House plenary), distributed across 23 political parties. The alliance between this group and other conservative blocks has been further consolidated. Under these conditions, attacks on sexual and reproductive rights must always be understood in terms of their connections with a much broader conservative agenda encompassing, among other topics, public security (intensification of criminalization, decreasing the age of criminal responsibility, and the elimination of gun control), the demolishing of indigenous rights in order to favor agribusiness, and the destruction of the regulatory framework for radio and TV outlets. As also noted by Birolli, the growth of the parliamentarian religious sectarian group means that even if MP Cunha is evicted from the political stage, there will be many others left to push for legislation aimed at curtailing sexual and reproductive rights.
Another aspect, which must be emphasized is that, although the sectarian religious group is the main caucus usually pushing these regressive agendas, many other parliamentarians who do not necessarily share their dogmatic views on these matters have been following their lead on critical occasions. This happened, for example, in late February 2016, when the House voted on Provisional Measure (MP 696/2015). The conservative block used the opportunity to propose that the term “gender perspective” (used to described the attributions of the new Ministry for Women’s Policies, Racial Equality, Youth and Human Rights) be deleted. At the same time, the House also requested that the Inter-American Human Rights Convention be mentioned as the main reference for the human rights premises of the new Ministry (because, in their interpretation, the Convention protects the right to life from conception onwards. [3] Both proposals were approved, the elimination of “gender perspective” by 13 votes.
In the vote, which was nominal, the measure to delete gender perspective was supported across the political spectrum (30 parties are now represented in the Brazilian parliament). Only the PT, the PSOL (Party for Socialism and Freedom) and the PCdB (Communist Party of Brazil) voted in block against it. It is troubling to note that 13 votes for the deletion came from the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), given that since December 2014, this party has been a member of a Latin American network of socialist parties in support of gender equality. Amongst feminists, there was a brief expectation that the Senate would overturn this move. This was not the case, however. On March 7th, as if to indelibly mark International Women’s Day, the senators confirmed the House’s decision.
These are the political and ideological conditions that will preside over the upcoming voting on the following provisions: PL5069 (authored by MP Cunha), which aims at limiting access to abortion in the case of rape; the Statute of the Unborn (PL 478/07), which intends to grant rights to the embryo/fetus by completely restricting access to abortion; and the Statute of Family, which defines this in the most conventional and traditional terms, which are completely at odds with the realities of Brazilian families. [4]
Although the Congressional dynamics are currently overtaken by the impeachment debate, strong signs can be seen that suggest that this will not diminish the aggressiveness of the conservative block with regards to sexual and reproductive rights. The alterations made in the text of MP 696/2015 are certainly one example of this. More strikingly, when the
public debates on the Zika crisis and abortion flared up, a MP from the state of Pernambuco proudly announced that he will introduce a bill imposing specific and very high penalties on abortion in the case of microcephaly. Two weeks ago, a public hearing was called in the context of a House Parliamentarian Inquiry Commission that is investigating cybercrimes to assess what measures are being taken by the state to control and punish the sale and purchase of Misoprostol through the internet. [5]
Furthermore, similar legislative propositions are being proposed concurrently at other legislative levels. As this article was being written, for example, the press reported that the Federal District Assembly was on the verge of approving a law modeled on PL 5069, restricting access to abortion in the case of rape. Meanwhile, municipal councilors in Recife were voting for the suspension of distribution of gender and sexuality materials by the public education system.
Last but not least, as previously analyzed by SPW, the PT era – and the last five years in particular –was not exactly favorable for the sexual and reproductive rights agenda. However, even though predictions about what will happen in the overall Brazilian political scenario in the next few months are far from evident, one prognostic can easily be made: if impeachment moves forward, the political context that will emerge will be decidedly unfavorable and disabling for sexual and reproductive rights, given that the bulk of the regressive forces described above are firmly installed in the pro-impeachment band wagon.
Meanwhile, criminalization continues to tighten its grip
On Wednesday, April 6th, the press reported that the police in Copacabana had raided a clandestine abortion clinic. Two doctors and a woman were taken by the police to give testimony and it appears that the doctors have been indicted but the woman was not, being simply inducted into the judicial procedures as a witness. As this report was being finalized, feminists were protesting in front of the police station. 

Outside the police station: Black & white poster: Legal abortion: a question of democracy
Headstones: Rest in Peace: Woman dead from unsafe abortion; woman dead from a needle;
woman killed by the law; woman dead from machismo

[1] Analysis performed under the a joint initiative involving Cfemea, IPAS and SPW to produce and circulate information about sexual and reproductive matters, in particular abortion, at the level of the Brazilian Congress.
[2] In Queering the Public Sphere in Mexico and Brazil: Sexual Rights Movements in Emerging Democracies, Duke University Press, 20
[3] An extensive literature exists on this matter in which various progressive interpreters contest the narrow interpretations of the Convention concocted by anti-abortion forces and Inter-American Court itself has issued and interpretation in which it says that the definition of the definition the Convention is not to be used in ways that curtail the exercise of other rights, as for example women’s rights.
[4] See
[5] Cybercrimes have been on the Brazilian legislative agenda since the early 2000’s. The furious tone of these debates cooled down when the Civil Law Framework of regulation was finally approved in 2014. Lately, however, conservative sectors have once again revived the topic. To read more about the internet regulation debates in Brazil see
Reprinted with kind permission
Editor: Marge Berer

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