Sexuality Policy Watch

Brazilian abortion politics: An update

by Sonia Corrêa

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 viruses’ 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 an 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.

The Zika public health crisis: news from the frontlines

As noted by various observers, the Zika crisis must be looked at from several angles: the scientific research and epidemiological evidence regarding the virus’ transmission and its effects; the realm of sanitation and health policies; and the specific domain of sexual and reproductive health and rights, in particular abortion. Before looking into this last area more closely, we will provide a brief and necessarily broad overview on the Zika public health crisis.

One first observation we can make is that, when looked through the triple lenses outlined above, the Brazilian state’s response to the crisis has been decidedly skewed. On the one hand, it has been quite rapid, efficient and well funded with regards to biomedical and epidemiological research. Since late 2015, roughly 35 million dollars have been channeled to domestic research groups working in partnership with international institutions. One main outcome of these investments is that Fiocruz, the main Brazilian public health foundation, has announced that a rapid test for Zika may be available as early as June. Furthermore research findings have been pouring in since January and, in partnership with PAHO/WHO, an epidemiological situation room has been established that provides weekly updates on Dengue, Zica and Chicungunya, including information regarding “microcephaly” (in Portuguese).

Final and definitive proof regarding the transmission patterns of Zika and its effects has not yet been fully discovered and great uncertainty still exists[6] in respect to the transmission, scale and impact of the epidemics. Nevertheless, the data gathered and analyzed since late 2015, in Brazil and elsewhere, provides extensive evidence pointing to a strong correlation between Zika infection and serious birth defects. Furthermore, the research findings now available show that the epidemics disproportionally affect the poorest sectors of the population, which live in areas where potable water is scarce and basic sanitation is almost nonexistent. This points towards the failure of structural policies to universally ensure quality of life and well being among all segments of the Brazilian population. Research has also demonstrated that when Zika affects women who are also prone to other diseases that cause microcephaly (such as Rubella, Toxoplasmosis, Citomegalovirus and Syphilis [7]), the neurological defects cause by the virus tend to be deeper and wider. This evidence has led the Brazilian scientific community and the feminist movement to reject “microcephaly” as an adequate terminology and to adopt the term “Zika related congenital syndrome”.

However, when we look at the public health response at the ground level, where women are coping with the reproductive effects of Zika and also the symptoms and side effects of Dengue and Chikungunya, the situation becomes dire. Press reports keep pouring in from all over the country, including the most dramatically affected areas, relating the difficulties women face in accessing health care, both for themselves and their babies. In early March UN Women, in partnership with PAHO and UNFPA, convened a meeting of women’s organizations, particularly those based in the regions where the epidemics are more severe. The reports brought to the meeting dramatically demonstrated that while women are at the center of the epidemics in day-to-day life, their voices and experiences are not being taken seriously by the state response in the realm of health care.

If this poor response is obvious in the more conventional areas of maternal and childcare, the failures with regards to sexual and reproductive health are even more drastic. No additional effort has been made, for example, to expand access to contraceptives in the most affected areas.  These problems have their origin in the gradual abandonment of the SRHR agenda in recent years, but they also reflect the impacts of the political crisis on the executive branch’s implementation capacity . In response to these failures, a Women’s Situation Room has been established to assess the Zika crisis, which will meets periodically, with the support of the above mentioned UN agencies.

In this somber scenario, since January, the  Ministry of Social Development has bene announcing that it will grant access to a social security benefit known as the BPC (in the value of one monthly minimum wage: 300 US$) for all mothers of babies affected by Zika related congenital syndrome. However since then the only concrete measure that has been adopted was the transfer of additional resources to states to accelerate the diagnostics of  Zika infections and related congenital syndrome. The extension of the BCP, however, remains one crucial element  of a proper state response to the crisis and Anis  calls for this measure  in the appeal it is preparing for the Brazilian Supreme Court in relation to the Zika crisis and its effects on women’s lives, health and reproductive rights.

The core argument of the ANIS appeal is that the State failed its constitutional mandate to protect women’s health, well being and rights and that the responsibility for the drastic effects of the crisis (including taking to term pregnancies of gravely impaired children) cannot fall on the shoulders of women. The preliminary proposals of the appeal also claimed social security support to be universally granted to these women. The proposal is moving forward in partnership with the National Association of Public Defenders (ANADEP). At this stage, according to Débora Diniz:

The appeal  is at an  intermediate stage of finalization. National and international opinions of experts from various fields of knowledge — medicine, psychology, and history of medicine, basic science – are being collected in order to be attached to the briefing that will accompany the appeal to the Supreme Court.

In respect to the next steps in this realm, it should be noted that an enormous amount of responsibility has been attributed to the Supreme Court as the final guarantor of constitutional premises in the complex processing of the current political crisis (in Portuguese). This means that the ANIS and ANEDEP legal challenge will face many obstacles. Nevertheless, it is a major step forward.

Meanwhile, criminalization continues to tighten its grip

protesto delegacia

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.



[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

[6] There is a possibility, for example, the widespread Culet mosquito also transmits that Zika. Preliminary evidence has been gathered regarding sexual transmission, but it is not yet clear what this implies in epidemiological terms. It is also not clear if the detrimental effects of the virus vary across the several stages of pregnancy.

[7] The incidence of syphilis in Brazil is of particular concern because the disease seems to be out of control. The number of congenital syphilis cases has risen from 8,000 in 2008 to 22,000 in 2015. Additionally, penicillin to treat the disease is currently out of stock in the public health system.

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