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Brazil: Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHRs) Challenged by Religious-Based Political Parties

by Lydia Alpizar-Duran | http://twitter.com/awid | Association for Women's Rights in Development
Thursday, 10 October 2013 16:24 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There has been discussion recently in Brazil about possible legislation known as “Estatuto do Nascituro” - the Statute of the Unborn Child. Executive coordinator of Catholics for the Right to Decide  (CDD/BR) Rosângela Talib, who was interviewed by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) last month, is concerned about how this, and other similar proposals, will affect women’s sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHRs).

Current legislation in Brazil defines abortion as a crime except under Article 128 of the Criminal Code which exempts women from punishment in cases where there is a risk to the pregnant mother's life or where pregnancy has resulted from rape. A recent law approved on 1 August 2013 by the President affords abortion care services under the national health care system in these cases.

But even these rights are now being challenged by an upsurge in what Talib calls “religious fundamentalisms, [and]… moral conservatism”.

She says religious fundamentalisms have impeded the advancement of Brazilian women’s human rights and that there is a constant effort by religious groups to violate the secularity of the state. The challenge to women’s SRHRs, Talib argues, is a result of “the actions of conservative groups organized in partisan politics (including the formation of parliamentary groups), interfering with the passing of laws and in the implementation of public policies”.

The Statute of the Unborn Child

The draft Statute of the Unborn Child (PL 478/2007) was initially approved in 2010 by the Family and Social Security Commission and then advanced again in 2013 where it was approved by the Finances and Tax Commission. Pending debate in the Constitution, Justice and Citizenship Commission it will then proceed to the Senate.

The draft Bill “recognizes the embryo as a human being. It ensures the protection of fetuses fertilized in vitro, prohibiting the manipulation, freezing, disposal and sale of human embryos. It establishes measures to ensure psychological counseling for pregnant women victims of rape who wish to continue the pregnancy, guiding them towards a possible adoption. In the case of an identified assailant – "parent" - he will be required to pay alimony; in the case of unidentified assailant, the State shall be responsible for paying the pension until the child reaches the age of majority ("rape aid fund”). In cases of fetal malformation, the bill ensures “all existing therapeutic and prophylactic means to redress or minimize the disability, independently of expected extra-uterine survival”.”

The Frente Parlamentar Mista em Defesa da Vida (Mixed Parliamentary Front in Defense of Life) is responsible for drafting the Bill. According to Talib this group, along with the Evangelical Parliamentary Front, have made proposals to withdraw current legislation aiming to make abortion a crime in any circumstance. They have also prevented the progress of legislation with regard to sex workers’ SRHRs.

In the case of pregnancy as a result of rape, Talib maintains the Bill would essentially force “a mandatory parental relationship between the woman and her attacker.  The Statute reduces the woman to merely her reproductive role, with no regard for her SRHRs, including rights to bodily autonomy, mandating that in the case of an unwanted pregnancy, a woman should give the child up for adoption.”

Other strategic challenges to SRHRs

The Statute on the Unborn Child is one of many attempts to impede women from exercising their SRHRs, including a recent call from the same religious groups who drafted the Statute, for a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission intothe “funding of civil society organisations that work to promote safe abortion and campaign for the legalisation of abortion in Brazil”.

Other examples from Talib include: “efforts to prohibit the distribution of emergency contraceptives in some parts of the country; an attempt to criminalize around 10,000 women in Mato Grosso do Sul for allegedly having an abortion at a private clinic; and the impact and controversy surrounding the publication of the 3rd National Human Rights Program (PNDH3).

Talib, however, is not only concerned about the direct assaults on women’s SRHRs in Brazil, but also the constant religious rhetoric on the abortion debate and “the use of the police apparatus and the judiciary to intimidate and restrict women, depriving them of their human rights”. According to Talib, “in addition to the economic power of militants who call themselves "pro-lifers", their increasing aggressiveness and their lobbying actions together with Members of Parliament and judges, are increasingly using strategies, including inter alia: complex anti-choice arguments, which use pseudo-scientific discourse (often based on false premises)”.

On a more encouraging note, a Bill related to the hospital protocol of victims of sexual violence and/or rape, was recently approved by the Senate and awaits the president's endorsement. The Bill provides for the mandatory and full care of individuals who have been victims of sexual violence, but religious groups requested to veto Items IV - prevention of pregnancy, and VII, – provision of information to victims on legal rights and all health services available. According to Talib, “opponents allege that the term "prevention of pregnancy" would be a disguised form of decriminalizing abortion. Item VII, on the provision of information to victims on their legal rights while being treated in health care facilities, was considered an inappropriate procedure”. Despite this resistance, the Bill was passed on 1 August due to “Catholics, feminist organizations, independent feminists, parliamentary representatives of the women’s caucus of the National Congress, and representatives of the School Board-Psychology and Anthropology who twice met with Ministers to provide reasons why it would be inappropriate not to pass the law in its entirety”.

Support for women’s SRHRs does exist in Brazil, suggesting that the country is somewhat polarised around the issue of abortion – for example in March this year a group representing the Federal Council of Medicine sent a set of recommendations to the Senate urging “federal lawmakers to change the country's restrictive abortion law to allow abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy” saying that the “high number of botched illegal abortions and their sometimes tragic consequences were behind the recommendation”. Clearly, however, this has not come to pass in Brazil, with continued and relentless opposition to abortion by religious groups, and the waters now being tested again by the Statute of the Unborn Child.

Brazilian women will have to wait and see whether or not the current legislation will stand firm in the face of this new proposal – and Talib claims that further gains can be aided by addressing “a need to continue the discussion on sexual rights and reproductive rights in the media, with youth, and with the general population, and to continue advocacy in Parliament, to ensure that fundamentalist religious groups don’t succeed in pushing back women’s hard fought for SRHRs”.


Research assistance by Gabriela De Cicco