Sexuality Policy Watch

BBC expands the coverage of abortion in Brazil: but at what cost?

By Fábio Grotz

Since early June, BBC Brazil — possibly with a view to feeding the national debate around ADPF 442/2017 or perhaps as a reflection of the victorious Irish referendum – began a series of reports on clandestine abortion and abortion policies in Brazil. The series encompassed the following headlines: “Inside a WhatsApp secret abortion clinic”; “To abort is to kill, says the mother of the pregnant woman who died in an abortion clinic”; “Woman denounced by emergency doctor is indicted for the crime of abortion”; “I was bleeding while being interrogated”; “My mother tried to kill me while I was in her belly and thought that it had happened”.  The prioritization of the issue is certainly welcome in this critical moment of the debate at the country level. Yet the approach is not exempt from caveats and, in fact, the first report was publicly criticized by the National Front for Abortion Legalization and Decriminalization of Women, which severely contested the procedures adopted by the journalist to access the sources, points towards technical errors  regarding the regulation and use of Cytotec (or misoprostol, the medication used by the group of women featured in the report) and to the lack of attention to complexities and paradoxes implied in the harsh realities of accessing abortion procedures in Brazil (text in Portuguese).

From SPW’s point view — as a platform that observes both national and international press approaches to abortion rights – the discrepancy in tone between the English and the Portuguese reports on the “secret WhatsApp clinic” was remarkable. While in the first the case, the text was framed in terms of rights and public health, the Brazilian version while essaying to also address the question through a public health lens, mostly emphasizes the morbid, lethal, bleeding dimensions of women´s abortion experience. This editorial approach, in our view, is exceedingly imbalanced towards the scandal. By entering the privacy of women and detailing physiological experiences of frailty and suffering the report suggests that BBC is using a media seduction strategy that resorts to the same exasperated affects that have historically prevailed in the abortion debate in Brazil.  It is not our aim to question or restrict the freedom of a press vehicle to address an issue as it considers the best way to do it, as a basic democratic principle. On the other hand, when addressing abortion, we cannot disregard basic democratic principles of individual freedom and reproductive autonomy and the fact that abortion is always situated in a larger context determined by structural conditions.

Having this reasoning at the backdrop, we consider it necessary to ask what explains this option for rhetoric devoted to the exploitation of drama, the detailed description of pain and brutality, typical of tabloids, instead of examining the problem of abortion through other angles that may clarify better the factors at play in the dramas being described? Why expose the circuits of solidarity networks amongst women who have opted to terminate a pregnancy? Why emphasize blood and tears instead of politics and critical reflection,  in a moment that is so relevant for the right to abortion in Brazil? Does this option derive from an editorial supposition that to speak of abortion in Brazil it is necessary to play within the pro and against polarization?  Or this option is merely instrumental to achieve greater visibility in internet media trails?  Whatever is the reason, abortion-related matters, our experience in tracking the coverage of abortion-related matters tells that other international vehicles – such as The Guardian (here and here), the New York Times or El País do not frame the subject in these terms.

But there is a bit more to say. As noted by the public note issued by National Front for Abortion Legalization, problematic technical inaccuracies were easily detected in the first articles analyzed here. The same applies to a later article that, inspired by the partial voting of an abortion law reform in Argentina, on June 14th, was titled: “Why the Congress and the Supreme Court go into opposite directions when discussing abortion in Brazil”. While this new article has the unequivocal merit to transport the analyses to the policy level, it erroneously affirms that since 1989 no proposals for abortion reform have been made in Brazil.

This is far from true. Since 1991, a number of projects aimed at the legalization of abortion have been tabled at Congress, as follows: Law Provision 1135/1991, authored by MPs Eduardo Jorge e Sandra Starling (PT); Law Provision PL 1956/1996, authored by MP Marta Suplicy; the proposition elaborated by the 2005 Tripartite Commission for Abortion Legal Reform; last but not least, the Law Provision 882/2015 tabled by MP Jean Wyllys (PSOL/RJ) in March 2015.  The processing of these various provisions has been convoluted and all of them have been blocked by anti- abortion forces whose presence expanded at Congress level in the last fifteen years. Even so, it is not appropriate to affirm that silence on abortion reform has prevailed in the course of the last three decades.

Debates on abortion, in Brazil and elsewhere, have been and continue to be polarized, conflictive, swampy.  Their coverage implies many challenges for the press and formers of opinion that speak on the matter. One of them, probably the hardest, is how to find the proper tone to enhance reflections on the deleterious effects of criminalization and the complexity of abortion realities, without hiding the somber sides of the topic while at the same time avoiding the easy road of scandalous and polarized approaches. The precise verification of data and facts is another crucial requirement for reporting on the subject.  While it may not be easy to produce always press reports that shift away from blood, suffering, crime, and punishment towards the realms of legality, public health matters, politics, and democracy. But, in our view, this is the best way possible to qualify the debate and positively contribute to ensuring women’s rights to decide.

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