The right to abortion: briefing from Brazil

About the author
Cecilia Sardenberg is a Brazilian feminist, academic and activist. She is the director and a founding member of the Nucleus of Interdisciplinary Women's Studies (NEIM) at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil

A heated debate over reforms to Brazil's outdated abortion laws has intensified across the country in 2007. The tensions were on show in August at the Brasilia gathering of the second Conference for Public Policies for Women (II CNPM), attended by 2.800 delegates representing all twenty-seven Brazilian states. As they waited for the result of a vote on a proposal to legalise abortion - beyond the current situation, where it is legal only if the pregnancy results from rape or when it puts the mother's life at risk - many of those present feared a coordinated attempt by anti-abortion groups to obstruct the voting process.

Cecilia Sardenberg is the director, and a founding member, of the Nucleus of Interdisciplinary Women's Studies(NEIM) at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA).

She is also convenor of the Latin American hub of the Pathways of Women's EmpowermentCecilia Sardenberg attended the Global Safe Abortion Conference conference in London on 23-24 October 2007.

openDemocracy's ongoing coverage of the conference includes blogs from Jane Gabriel, Jessica Reed and Grace Davies in oD Today - click here

The reformists, however, were far more visible. Members of the Feminist Network for Sexual Rights and Reproductive Rights draped a large banner along one wall of the conference centre that carried the slogan of the Campaign for Safe Abortion: "women decide, society respects the decision, the state ensures its execution". Other groups and coalitions, such as the Women's World March and the nationwide feminist network the Articulation of Brazilian Women (AMB) displayed similar signs and banners, and chorused pro-reform jingles. The mood of the gathering was on their side: when the voting was finally called, hundreds of "credential" cards were proudly raised aloft in support of legalisation, to loud applause in the convention centre. Another - though only provisional - battle had been won on the long march towards the legalisation of abortion in Brazil.

The pain within

At that moment several images flooded my mind. During the lunch break of that last day of the conference, a feminist performance group from Recife, Pernambuco - Loucas da Pedra Lilás - had staged a short play depicting the perils of illegal abortions. The stage-scenery had included hundreds of shoes strewn around the entrance to the conference centre, representing the thousands of women who have died as a result of clandestine abortions in Brazil (the law notwithstanding, nearly 37% of pregnancies in Brazil end in abortions - amounting to 1.1 million abortions per year).

Those shoes also made me think of Zezé, a poor black woman, mother of six youngsters, and a clerk in the federal university in Bahia where I teach. She died in 1987 after a botched abortion attempt by a back-alley practitioner left her with internal perforations in her intestines and uterus. I further remembered the young girl who worked as a domestic worker in an acquaintance's home. She had gone to a doctor to get an abortion (paid for by her employer) and came home certain that the procedure had been successfully concluded, only to find herself actually expelling the foetus on a cold bathroom floor that same evening.

I should also confess that the vote to reform the law provoked a more personal memory. I recalled that more than twenty years ago, I found myself lying on an operating table in a clandestine abortion clinic - too weak from haemorrhaging as the result of the intervention, yet too scarred to go to a hospital for greater care. Only the dreadful thought of leaving behind a little boy and a little girl motherless motivated me to build the courage and strength to go looking for help.

The cost of exclusion

Women who decide to terminate an abortion in Brazil still face enormous obstacles in securing safe treatment. The Brazilian minister of health, José Gomes Temporão, declared in April 2007 that illegal abortions are a "public-health problem", and observed that criminalisation has done little to curtail its practice. There is also an enormous cost to public funds; a quarter of those 1.1 million abortions requires hospital stays due to the complications of clandestine abortions.

Also in openDemocracy:Andrea Cornwall, "Pathways to women's empowerment" (27 July 2007)

Srilatha Batliwala, "Putting power back into empowerment" (27 July 2007)

Mulki Al-Sharmani, "Egypt's family courts: route to empowerment?" (7 September 2007)

These articles open a new collaboration between openDemocracy and the research consortium Pathways of Women's Empowerment project at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.

This explores ideas, projects and initiatives from around the world - Brazil to Egypt, Sierra Leone to Bangladesh - which aims to understand what enables women to empower themselves and sustain changes in gendered power relations

In the poor northeastern state of Bahia alone, an illegal abortion takes place every three hours. Brazil's ministry of health estimates that in 2006 more than 26,700 women in the state were hospitalised after illegal operations. It is not surprising then that illegal abortions are the main cause of maternal mortality here. Most of the victims are young, poor and black. Dr Greice Menezes, a researcher at the Federal University of Bahia's school of public health, says: "Deep down, abortion is a portrayal of social exclusion: the law criminalises all women who practice it, but punishes with death only those who are poor and black". Unlike middle- and upper-class women, such women cannot afford to pay for a clandestine abortion in modern, safe clinics.

Since the early 1990s, there has been renewed discussion in Brazil's national congress about reviewing the existing legislation. In 1991, a legal commission to decriminalise the seeking of abortion was the focus of much debate, but the relevant committee could not agree a way forward; a much more thorough proposal to allow "abortion on demand" until the third month of pregnancy was presented to congress by the minister of the public policy for women, Nilcéa Freire. This project was discussed in congress's family and social-security committee, but was put aside because the issue was too "hot" to be addressed in an electoral year.

A change of direction

The process that led to the August 2007 vote in Brasilia has, then, been lengthy and arduous. The new reform project arose out of the first National Conference for Public Policy for Women (I CNPM), held in Brasília in 2004; then, more than 2,000 delegates representing the wishes of nearly 300,000 women throughout the country approved the legalisation of abortion on demand. This important gain was itself the culmination of a strategic move by feminist activists working in different organisations to form a coalition focus on this specific goal.

Gilberta Soares, former coordinator of Jornadas Brasileiras pelo Direito ao Aborto Legal e Seguro (Brazilian Campaign for the Right to a Safe and Legal Abortion), says that until 2003 feminist supporters of abortion rights mobilised only to "put out fires": that is, to react to evident threats to existing abortion rights rather than to plan ahead in a proactive fashion to achieve change.

Those present at a meeting called by the Feminist Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights decided that it was time to shift in this direction, and work towards the legalization of abortion. Jornadas Brasileiras was created to put that decision to work. This involved a range of public actions: training participants in building strong arguments, talking to the media, enlarging constituencies, and joining forces with colleagues across Latin American to strengthen the campaign around "28 September" - designated as the day of struggle to legalise abortion.

This campaign has benefited from the rise to power of more progressive political parties, such as the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party / PT) in Brazil that brought Luis Inácio Lula da Silva to the presidency of the country in 2002. However, it also faces growing opposition from fundamentalist religious groups, particularly elements of the Catholic church which were notably strengthened by the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Brazil in 2007.

Indeed, the pope's visit intensified the debate on abortion in the country. It was clear to Brazilian feminists and many others that the centrepiece of the trip - the canonisation of Frei Galvão, the patron of pregnant women - was part of a broader plan by the church to curb women's struggles for reproductive rights in Brazil.

The results soon became clear. In May 2007, more than 5,000 people connected to various religious groups staged a protest in São Paulo denouncing abortion as "murder". They highlighted the case of a baby called Marcela, who although born without a functioning brain was still alive at four months, thus challenging medical claims that life outside the uterus is impossible for anacephalous infants. Such a case, they argue, invalidates arguments in favour of legalisation of abortion.

The next campaign

The response of Brazilian feminists to this counter-effort is - for the moment, at least - to avoid a head-on collision. This is a strategic choice: recent polls indicate that public opinion in Brazil has taken a strongly conservative turn in relation to abortion. In 1993, 54% of those polled defended the maintenance of abortion laws as they stood, while 23% supported full legalisation; a poll in Folha de São Paulo in October 2007 suggests that the percentage favouring legalisation has fallen to 16%.

It is striking and regrettable that people from the very groups likely to suffer most from abortion's illegality - those with low educational and income levels who live in northeastern Brazil - are the strongest supporters of the anti-abortion position. They are also, not coincidentally, the people most targeted by the fundamentalist religious groups that have been gaining support in Brazil.

It must be remembered too that "big media" has played a key role in driving public opinion in a more conservative direction. Carla Batista, executive secretary of the AMB observes: "There is too much money invested in fostering a more conservative stance in society. Since the beginning of the Bush government, for example, the United States has invested in this issue - and not only in the US. Brazil is exposed to this influence, and thus we see the growth of organisations that have a greater power to build public opinion having greater access to the means of communications than social movements."

Church-funded movements such as the Movimento Brasil Sem Aborto (Brazil Without Abortions Movement) can indeed afford to make a big splash in the media. On the day of the health minister's visit to Bahia, the major local newspapers published half-page advertisements condemning his pronouncements and calling abortion a crime. This tactic echoes the so-called " fraternity campaign" promoted by the Catholic church at the time of Pope Benedict XV1's visit, whose major theme is the "preservation of life".

It is clear, then, that there are real challenges facing Brazilian feminists and their supporters in the campaign to legalise abortion beyond the current strict limits. It is in this respect that the Brasilia conference decision is significant: for it both reaffirmed support for legislation sanctioning abortion on demand and approved a motion recommending the current government to reintroduce such a measure for legislative approval. The road is still long and still arduous, but the daily task of (in Carla Batista's words) "deconstructing all the existing prejudice and equivocations in relation to abortion" continues. Zezé, and millions of Brazilian women like her, deserve no less.