Buenos Aires Times

latin america WOMEN'S RIGHTS

Brazil's top court holds debate on decriminalising abortion

The public debate in the Supreme Court, coming two months before contentious presidential elections and with a bill in Argentina's Congress, will eventually to be followed by a ruling, but no date has been set for the vote.

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In this June 2018 photo, women take part in a protest demanding the legalisation of abortion, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Supporters and opponents of legalising abortion began testifying on Friday in front of Brazil's top court, which is holding two days of extraordinary hearings on the issue.
In this June 2018 photo, women take part in a protest demanding the legalisation of abortion, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Supporters and opponents of legalising abortion began testifying on Friday in front of Brazil's top court, which is holding two days of extraordinary hearings on the issue. Foto:AP-Silvia Izquierdo

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As the debate over the decriminalisation of abortion reaches its climax in Argentina's Congress, Brazil is having its own discussions on the issue.

On Friday, the Supreme Court began a series of public hearings on whether to scrap the country's highly restrictive abortion laws that have pushed large numbers of women to seek clandestine procedures. The extraordinary sessions come at a time when strengthening women's movements are pushing against often decades-old laws in Latin America.

More than 50 representatives from health, religious, academic and non-governmental areas were testifying before the court in Brasilia in hearings that continued Monday on whether to ease restrictions in Latin America's biggest country.

In Brazil, a deeply conservative nation that is home to the world's largest population of Catholics and fast-growing evangelical faiths, abortion is illegal and comes with a punishment of up to three years in prison. There are three exceptions: if a woman is raped, pregnancy puts her life in danger, or the foetus is brain-dead.

The proposal to allow abortions for women up to 12 weeks pregnant is opposed by the Catholic and many evangelical churches, but comes just as neighbouring Argentina's Senate is about to vote on a similar measure.

Proponents argue that abortion laws, which harken back to the 1940s, are at odds with protections in the 1988 Constitution, written after Brazil returned to democracy after a dictatorship. Similar to abortion opponents in many countries, in Brazil the central argument is that life begins at conception and ultimately trumps almost all other considerations.

One in five

However, Maria de Fátima, a doctor with the Health Ministry, testified that even so one of five Brazilian women have had an abortion. She said that every year 230 women die and another 250,000 are hospitalised after complications in illegal procedures.

Debora Diniz, an anthropologist and law professor at the University of Brasilia, told the story of a black maid who, already struggling to raise three children, died from infection after several attempts to illegally abort her pregnancy. Citing a 2016 survey undertaken by the university and echoing the Health Ministry doctor's assertion, Diniz noted that one in five Brazilian women under 40 years old have had an illegal abortion.

"The crime is how women are having abortions," said Diniz, who earlier in the week said she had received threats because of her vocal position on the topic.

Hermes Rodrigues Nery, from the National Association of Pro-Life and Pro-Family, argued that instead of helping the poor get abortions, concerned groups should focus on attacking the root causes of poverty and racism in one of the world's most unequal countries.

"The culture of death impedes our development as a nation, development that only comes from human capital," he said.

Presidential ballot

The public debate in the Supreme Court, coming two months before contentious presidential elections, is eventually to be followed by a ruling, but no date has been set for the vote.

Among the leading presidential candidates, right-winger Jair Bolsonaro is strongly anti-abortion, while environmentalist Marina Silva, who belongs to an evangelical church, has called for a referendum on the topic.

This week, Brazil's Catholic bishops reiterated their position that life is "unconditional" and "should be respected and defended at every stage and condition that human takes." 

The issue made national headlines last year when a Brazilian woman, Rebecca Mendes, fought publicly to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Her petition was eventually denied by the top court, and she had her abortion in Colombia.

The discussions in Brazil, Latin America's largest nation, come as Argentina is on the cusp of allowing elective abortions in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. A vote in the Senate is expected next week after the measure narrowly passed the lower chamber of Congress in June. At present, the abortion is currently decriminalised in case of pregnancies that are a result of rape or when the health of women is endangered.

Latin America is a region with generally tight abortion laws. It is legal in Cuba and Uruguay and in Mexico City, but otherwise far more restricted. In Chile, the Constitutional Court last year upheld legislation ending the Andean nation's absolute ban on abortions, permitting the procedure when a woman's life is in danger, when a foetus is not viable and in cases of rape.

In Brazil, numerous proposals to loosen abortion laws in recent years have failed to gain traction in Congress, where the so-called "evangelical bloc" exerts strong influence over social issues. Last year, a congressional committee approved a bill that would ban abortion in all circumstances, though it has yet to be voted on the floor of either chamber.

Regardless of the strict law, an estimated 500,000 illegal abortions are performed each year in Brazil, according to the 2016 survey by the University of Brasilia. Women who can afford it have the procedure done in private clinics or travel to other countries.

- TIMES/AFP/AP

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