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Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Situation Report: Brazil

June 1, 2009

The Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Situation Report is a monthly column highlighting advances or setbacks in SRHR policy internationally.  This month, we’re focusing on the abortion rights context in Brazil.

Brazil has seen a recent swing to the political left, and has a socialist president.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean much for the hundreds of thouands of women who die every year because of clandestine abortions, or the thousands who have been charged and face imprisonment for undergoing safe clinical abortions.

More than a million abortions take place in Brazil every year.  That’s more than a third of all pregnancies ending in abortion, and a quarter of women who do have clandestine abortions end up in the hospital from complications.  According to this World Health Organization report, even current estimates of 1.2 million abortions per year are probably low.  In spite of this, abortion remains criminalized and penalized with prison, and public opinion on abortion remains divided.

In this video, Brazilians are asked if they are for or against abortion, then if they know anyone who has had an abortion, then if they believe that she should be imprisoned: 

Brazil is  home to the world’s largest number of Catholics, so it’s no surprise that abortion is highly controversial.  What has been surprising, however, are the actions of the state and the church hierarchy on women’s rights.  Two recent incidents come to mind.  We all heard about the nine year old girl in a poor province of Northern Brazil who was raped repeatedly over time by her stepfather, became pregnant with twins, and was given an abortion.  Doctors had certified that the abortion was legal under both indications for legal abortion in Brazil– she’d been raped, and the pregnancy posed a risk to her life.

What came next was the truly shocking part.  The local bishop immediately announced that the doctor who had performed the abortion and the little girl’s mother were excommunicated for their actions.  In fact, the only adult involved not excommunicated was the stepfather who had raped the little girl.  The Brazilian archbishop argued that while rape is bad, abortion is worse.  There was a huge public outcry over the excommunication, and even the president of Brazil, a Catholic, decried the move.

The president has also recognized the public health crisis created by clandestine abortion, and has been quoted as saying, “No one is in favor of abortion.  But the question is: Should a woman be imprisoned? Should she die? It’s necessary to look at the woman as a human being.”

aborto nao deve ser crime

Another shocking recent incident in Brazil occurred in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.  Police there raided a family planning clinic and took almost 10,000 women’s medical records without following the basic process outlined in Brazilian law.  The names of the women who’s records were seized were published on the court’s website, along with their addresses and the nature of the crime they were accused of (abortion).  Often the charges were based simply on the presence of a sonogram and a signed relase in the patient’s chart.

Several thousand women were charged.  Some have already been sentenced, and others are still under investigation.  The sentences handed down by one patronizing judge included working in daycare centers and schools as “community service.”

Feminist groups, including the Latin American and Carribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights (CLADEM) and Ipas Brasil have come together to condemn the violation of the rights to privacy, health, liberty and due process, among others.  The groups have presented a document protesting the case to the president’s Human Rights Minister, but there are still thousands of women charged and being sentenced for receiving abortion services.

In the fight for sexual and reproductive health and rights, Brazilian feminist groups have had to deal with a lot of challenges, and have been criticized for being too reactive.

The feminist movement in Brazil has struggled to consolidate its activism, strategy and messages, partially because of Brazil’s geography.  The country’s immense size makes it difficult and expensive for activists from all over the country to come together in one place.  National conferences like the second Conference for Public Policies for Women (IICNPM) and groups like the Women’s Articulation (Articulação de Mulheres, or AMB) mark a movement toward coordinated national effort.

samantha buglioneI met some of the feminists from all over the country fighting for the right to choose while in Rio for a workshop on coordinating national strategies to decriminalize abortion, given by the organization I was working for in Mexico City, the Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE).  A young woman who stood out as one to watch is Samantha Buglione–a fabulous young feminist and scholar who works for women’s rights in a variety of contexts, speaking out on abortion, human rights, and violence against women.  I always love to see successful women my age doing such tremendous work.


In spite of outrageous cases like the prosecution of the women of Matto Grasso do Sul and the excommunication of a young victim and those who stepped forward to help her, our sisters in Brazil are working to bring Brazil’s laws and public policies in line with the fundamental rights of women.  In spite of the retrogressive and abusive practices of the Catholic hierarchy, there is a president who respects women’s autonomy and a group of passionate women who are fighting for women’s human rights and working to cement a  movement that is coordinated, proactive, and effective.

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