Where Policy Does Not Fully Address Reality – Abortion in Brazil

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.

Ato em defesa da descriminalização do aborto

Véspera do Dia Nacional de Redução da Mortalidade Materna, feministas em ato na Praça XV, defendem a descriminalização do aborto e destaca o alto índice de mortes em abortos clandestinos (Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil)

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


Brazil’s corruption probe means a boom time for lawyers

Samantha Pearson – Financial Times, 06/20/2016

With its concrete beds and squat toilets, the Complexo Médico-Penal is probably not where Brazil’s top construction and oil executives had pictured spending their retirement.

Normally reserved for mentally ill prisoners, the prison lies at the end of a potholed road on the banks of the Iraí reservoir in the southern state of Paraná. From the outside, a dilapidated brick archway at CMP’s entrance gives it the appearance of a rundown farm. However, an aerial view reveals its sinister layout, with the cells arranged in the shape of a giant machine gun.

For most of the past year, it has been home to Marcelo Odebrecht, head of Latin America’s largest construction group; João Vaccari Neto, former treasurer of the leftwing Workers’ party, Brazil’s largest political party, and other suspected ringleaders of the vast corruption scandal at Petrobras, the oil company.

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Brazil’s Political Crisis, Explained

Zack Beauchamp – Vox, 04/21/2016

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is in the midst of a stunning fall from grace.

In 2013, Rousseff had a roughly 80 percent approval rating. Today, it’s around 10 percent. Just this Sunday, one house of Brazil’s Congress voted to impeach her.

The story behind Rousseff’s collapse is extraordinary — but also a bit complicated. If you’re just learning about it, it might be a little bit difficult to parse why Rousseff is in so much trouble, and why this is all blowing up now.

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Lula and Rousseff square off in Brazil’s austerity soap opera

Joe Leahy – Financial Times, 10/25/2015

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff must wonder sometimes that with friends like her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who needs enemies.

Tensions between Ms Rousseff, a taciturn technocrat, and Mr Lula da Silva, a charismatic populist, have begun to take the twists and turns of one of Brazil’s sprawling telenovela soap operas, in which close friends and family often stab each other in the back.

For Ms Rousseff, who is facing the possibility of impeachment by an opposition emboldened by her growing unpopularity, the enemy within is the last thing she needs. For Latin America’s largest economy, which is sinking into its deepest recession since the 1930s, ruling party infighting will sap investor confidence only further.

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Brazil will be ready in time

Eric Farnsworth – The Miami Herald, 8/13/2015

Paraphrasing Ronald Reagan, there they go again. As Brazil readies to host the 2016 Olympic Summer Games one year from now, international observers have begun the countdown clocks and a familiar litany of complaints that are aired out before virtually every major worldwide sporting event.

Venues that will not be ready to host events. Infrastructure that can never be completed on time if at all. Community redevelopment projects that will remain on the drawing board. Security concerns and police over reaction. Cost overruns, debt accumulation, and corruption. Environmental clean-up and pollution control measures that are failing, endangering the health of athletes and spectators alike.

Hosting the Olympic Summer Games is not for the faint-hearted. It is a massive, risky, hugely expensive undertaking with increasingly questioned benefits. For approximately two weeks, cities and the nations they represent draw the eyes of the world, bringing the attention and anticipated revenue they might otherwise not have other opportunities to attract.

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Lava Jato Investigations will continue, as painful as it may be

Eliane Cantanhêde and Andreza Matais – O Estado de S.Paulo, 7/04/2015

Andre Dusek/Estadao

Photo by Andre Dusek/Estadao

A man of few words, the director-general of the Federal Brazilian Police, Leandro Daiello came out of anonymity to state, in an interview to Estado that no one will be exempt from the law. The ongoing investigations will proceed even if they lead to President Rousseff or former President Lula, he said. “We investigate facts, not people. Where those facts take us is a consequence of the investigation itself, as painful as it may be”.

Originally from the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, Daiello has been and director-general of the Brazilian equivalent to the FBI since 2011. He used the expression “as painful as it may be” three times during the interview, to make clear that the Federal Police is an independent institution with solid rules of conduct, and that investigations are to continue “with or without José Eduardo Cardozo as justice minister, and with or without Daiello leading the Federal Police”.

Continue reading “Lava Jato Investigations will continue, as painful as it may be”

Correcting Brazil’s police violence: the case of Rio’s Pacifying Police Units

Layne Vandenberg – Brazil Institute, 12/18/2014


Widespread protests against police violence and racism have recently scattered the United States after the release of the Ferguson (Michael Brown) and Eric Garner grand jury decisions. While Americans grapple with the reality of police violence, other countries live deeply entrenched in this reality. Scholar Ignácio Cano says there is “a Ferguson every day” in Brazil, and the state of Rio de Janeiro has been trying out a new policing strategy in hopes of improving community-police relations in its slums, called favelas.

Between 2009 and 2013, Brazilian police killed more than 11,000 people, or about six people per day. The 2014 edition of the Brazil Public Security Yearbook also found that 53,646 homicides occurred in 2013, or one person every 10 minutes.

With the highest per capita rate of killing of any Brazilian state and 6,826 homicides per year between 1991 and 2007, the state of Rio de Janeiro is “comparable with urban areas of countries in civil war.” But Rio needed a quick solution for its violent reputation among the international crowd. Rio is home to Maracanã stadium, where several 2014 FIFA World Cup matches, including the final, were held and the city is the host of the upcoming 2016 Olympic games. So how do you change the face of a city and a state in time for the world’s two largest sporting events?

The Rio state government’s solution: pacification.

Continue reading “Correcting Brazil’s police violence: the case of Rio’s Pacifying Police Units”