How Brazil Is Rolling Back Abortion Rights
After voting to ban terminations in all circumstances, one congressman described abortion as "Satanic."
Brazil, one of the world’s most populous nations, also has some of the world’s most regressive abortion laws. Abortion is illegal under almost all circumstances, with a few exceptions—where a woman’s life is at risk, the pregnancy is a result of rape, or if the fetus has anencephaly (a congenital birth defect).
As a result, illegal abortions are widespread. In 2015, Human Rights Watch estimated that half a million abortions took place that year. A woman needing abortion care in Brazil will almost certainly be forced to undergo an dangerous and potentially life-threatening procedure (69 women died as a result of unsafe abortions in 2015).
Now a group of male evangelical Christian politicians are looking to roll back what scarce abortion rights Brazilian women do have. Last week, 18 members of a congressional committee voted to ban abortion in all circumstances, including cases of rape and where a mother’s life is in danger. Erika Kokay of the Workers Party, the only woman on the committee, cast the sole opposing vote.
Evangelical congressman Pastor Eurico told the committee that abortion was a “Satanic, diabolical, and destructive act,” while waving a replica of a 12-week-old fetus. After passing the proposal to introduce a constitutional amendment banning all abortions was passed, the congressmen clapped, cheered, and celebrated with chants of “life yes, abortion no!”
“Most of these men are Catholic or Evangelical christians,” says Professor Debora Diniz, a leading Brazilian law professor, and founder of feminist organisation Anis. There is currently a large Evangelical presence in the National Congress, she explains, and the assault on abortion rights is a cynical political expediency. “Brazil is facing horrible political crises, conducted mostly by men, and there’s some open space to pick up hot issues to distract from the scandal, like women’s rights and abortion.”
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Now that the committee has voted in favor of the constitutional amendment, it will go before both chambers of the National Congress of Brazil, where it will need a two-thirds super-majority vote to pass. It is unlikely to go through—the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia, has said that his house will not approve the amendment—but it is a terrifyingly regressive assault on women’s bodily autonomy nonetheless.
“We’ve seen many legislative proposals in the last couple of years that trample on human rights,” explains César Muñoz of Human Rights Watch. “Those who advocate for such bills are turning their backs on the progress that Brazil has made since the end of the dictatorship.”
A total ban on abortion would have devastating consequences for Brazil’s girls and women, who are already forced to live under some of the worst anti-choice laws in the world. “Even women who become pregnant as a result of rape, or women who are told that the fetus has no hope of surviving outside the womb, would be forced to carry their pregnancies to term, or face the consequences of having an illegal abortion,” says Margaret Wurth of Human Rights Watch.
23-year-old Maria, from the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, dreams one day of becoming a medical doctor. (At her request, we have changed her name). When she was just 15, she had an illegal second-trimester abortion after falling pregnant by her violent, abusive then-boyfriend. “I could not handle such a horrible relationship with a man like him for my whole life,” she tells Broadly.
As Maria's mother had died when she was young, she turned to her boyfriend's mother for help.
“I had my abortion at home with her by my side,” Maria remembers. “I’m sure I’m here thanks to her. Without her, I would have died.”
Unable to access legal abortion, Maria used a contraband mix of oral and vaginal medicines. She still does not know what they were. “I did not know the steps and I was afraid. I remember lying on the bathroom floor and praying to live. I was bleeding terribly.”
Eventually, she was taken to hospital. “The physicians did a curettage [scraping the contents of the uterus] without anesthesia. They knew I’d had an abortion and were punishing me.”
Under the proposed new abortion ban, even more Brazilian women like Maria, or 49-year-old Anabella (whose name we have changed at her request), will be forced to undergo the dangers and trauma of illegal terminations. “We’re in a very conservative moment in Brazil, and it’s very dangerous,” says Anabella, who lives in Rio de Janeiro and has had two illegal abortions. “We’re going backwards, we’re losing our rights. Having a child must be a decision.”
But pro-choice Brazilians are protesting the constitutional amendment, and doing so in force. Thousands marched through Rio de Janeiro after the committee vote, chanting “Our Bodies Are Ours!” and bearing banners reading “secular uterus” and “I don’t deserve to bear the child of my rapist,” the AP reports. And women like Maria and Anabella will continue to resist this devastating and dangerous law, sharing their stories online on platforms like My Abortion Story.
“I fell myself miserable living under restrictive laws like those in my country," Maria says. "I’m not free to decide my future, my health and my life. It’s cruel and sad."
“Women cannot be denied safe and legal abortions. When we make the decision to have abortions, we’ve suffered enough already. We don’t need any additional suffering.”