Therese Kuester – The Brazil Institute, 07/21/2016
Politicians promote, or at least have on their agendas, policies that better the conditions of their own kind. This is often the rationale for people’s assumption that a female president looks to improve the condition of women in her country, especially on issues concerning reproductive choices, access to education, political representation and sexual assault. Brazil is one of a handful of nations that boasts, at least for now, a female president. As President Dilma Rousseff undergoes her impeachment trial, which is most likely to end in August with her removal from office and with a recent Zika outbreak highlighting reproductive concerns, it seems to be appropriate to ask what this female president has done for her fellow women, with abortion being a central issue.
In what Brazilian news network, O Globo, referred to as Dilma Rousseff’s first public stance on abortion, they paint the female President as a strong advocate for providing abortion in government operated clinics of the “Sistema Unico de Saude” (SUS) in the case of rape. Indeed, in 2013 President Rousseff supported the approval of a bill (Lei 12.845) that ensures that women who have been raped or assaulted receive immediate care and permission for abortion through state care. According to the President’s press secretary at the time, during the Worker’s party’s thirteen year tenure there was a reduction in deaths due to botched abortions thanks to an expansion of public health services for women. This information was published in a report by the government think tank IPEA (Instituto de Pesquisa Economica Aplicada) report using the national Health Ministry’s data from their Sistema de Informacoes sobre Mortalidade (SIM) which Globo compares with other statistics, showing that there was not as drastic of a drop in the maternal mortality as Rousseff seems to focus on. Even so, while Rousseff claims that there has been a 54% decline in maternal deaths in 22 years, 1.5 thousand Brazilian women still die each year due to improperly performed abortions. Dilma’s support of the bill contradicts a 2010 campaign promise she made to religious lobbyists, promising she would not seek to alter abortion legislation.
While O Globo examines Rousseff’s accomplishments, they do not provide general statistics on abortions or an explanation of current legislation. Abortion, as in many countries in Latin America except for Uruguay and Cuba, has been illegal in Brazil since the development of the 1940 penal code (WSJ 2016). There are only three exceptions: a threat to the mother’s life, evidence that the baby has anencephaly (absence of brain development) and in the case of rape. If a woman seeks an abortion, and is not included in these exceptions, she can be imprisoned for one to three years. Furthermore, if the woman is harmed by the abortion provider, the prison sentence given to the person who performed the abortion can be up to four years and to six if the woman dies. In an article published in March of 2016, Reuters describes how these punishments are enforced and often result in the raid of abortion clinics and the arrest of doctors.
Anti-abortion legislation is strongly defended by religious lobbies, which also advocate for complete criminalization of abortion. Since 1940, when the Brazilian penal code was enacted, the Catholic Church has been very vocal against any type of legalization of abortion. In recent years, Evangelical Churches have often taken the lead on anti-abortion campaigns . Almost two thirds of Brazilians identify as Catholic, and while this percentage has been in decline in recent years, millions of Brazilians have become members of the Evangelical Church. Several senior politicians, such as Congressman Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, have been vocal about the need to get rid of the exceptions, and want to pave the way to completely criminalize abortions. In the past 70 years 53 abortion-related bills have been tabled by religiously-minded politicians and public support for current abortion laws remains high at almost 82%. Out of the plethora of political parties, Dilma’s Worker’s Party and the Communist Party are the only two to have spoken about legislation of abortion as a matter of public health.
Despite these strict rules and religious views, women have not been stopped from seeking abortions. Over half (56%) of unwanted pregnancies end with abortion. This adds up to around one million abortions being performed in Brazil each year. Many of these abortions are performed in clandestine conditions or are self-induced, with the Guttmacher Institute reporting that at least 10% of pregnancy-related deaths were because of such unsafe abortions, and 760,000 women are hospitalized each year for treatment from complications. According to the Guttmacher report, 26% of all abortions are self-induced, with 26% of respondents reporting self-administering drugs, compared to the 18% who use the mainstream medication called Misoprostol. Many women responded that they chose this method because physicians and drugs are expensive and hard to come by.
While O Globo says that President Dilma Rousseff takes credit for an increase in access to safer abortions, the data could suggest that there needs to be an expansion on access to abortions beyond those who qualify under the three exceptions. With over one million abortions each year, and a probable increase in the demand with the threat of microcephaly due to Zika, many woman could take extreme measures to terminate a pregnancy which could turn into a public health crisis.
Therese is a staff intern at the Brazil Institute