The never-ending story of abortion in Brazil

In Brazil, 500,000 clandestine abortions are carried out every year, of which 200,000 end in complications and 500 in death, but the debate regarding legalisation appears to have halted. Español, Portugués

Manoela Miklos Lena Lavinas
22 January 2018



magen: Cris Faga / NurPhoto / SIPA USA / PA Images. Todos los derechos reservados.

Those who frequently read surveys and surf through statistics will know of the double-edged sword that is the elaboration of questionnaires whose questions can induce replies on two opposing sides of a spectrum. An example of this occurring was the 2005 referendum regarding the prohibition of commercial weapons in Brazil.

The numerous opinion polls preceding the vote indicated that society was largely in favour of prohibition, as an attempt to reduce the elevated homicide rates that cement Brazil’s position among the countries in which the crime occurs most around the world (in 2016 alone, there were 61 thousand murders reported).

At zero-hour however, it backfired both literally and metaphorically - as usually occurs when the subject is that of handling firearms. The result revealed that the weapons lobby with all of their madness (a bancada da bala) had turned the result around: 63.9% of Brazilians voted in favour of the arms trade in the name of self-defence, weakening one of the most important milestones in the long process of re-democratization that was the creation of the Statute of Disarmament (Estatuto do Desarmamento) in 2003.

Studies regarding the degree of public support for the complete decriminalisation and legalisation of abortion in Brazil are risky

Although it is easy for fear to be manipulated and the insecurities of the general public exploited throughout any campaign, even more so among a society in which the indices of violence rise in a linear fashion every year, it is quite possible that the way in which the question was elaborated influenced the final result profoundly. 

Studies regarding the degree of public support for the complete decriminalisation and legalisation of abortion in Brazil are risky for the very same reasons, and it is no coincidence that many of these studies frequently present contradictory interpretations of the matter.

The recent results of the study conducted by the Instituto Patrícia Galvão in partnership with the Instituto Locomotiva from December 2017 merit attention. The first findings are alarming, showing that only one in every four adult Brazilians are in favour of safe and legal abortions and the ability of women to freely decide for themselves.

Another disturbing finding was the revelation that 50% of those surveyed believed that a woman who practiced abortion should be punished with a prison sentence.

Therefore, the idea that abortion should be considered a crime is wide-spread, an attitude exemplified by Brazilian criminal law that classifies the voluntary interruption of a pregnancy illegal and punishable by law for anyone who practices or facilitates the process.

In a society where the criminalisation and judicialisation of everything and everyone is the norm, the prison system has become overwhelmed – the current occupation rate is 198% while 40% of detainees find themselves in interim regulation without ever having been sentenced. One must interpret such responses as inherent to a wider context, as a product of inaction within a morally impermeable society.

8 in every 10 Brazilians believe abortion should be dealt with as an issue of public health

Furthermore, for some time academic studies have been confirming that actions and perceptions of individuals tend to be influenced by public policy and current social norms, and not the contrary. Approximately 500 thousand clandestine abortions are carried out every year in Brazil with 500 resulting deaths and close to 200 thousand cases resulting in complications that then strain the public health system.

Considering this, it is plausible that tolerance of such a terrifying scenario is less of a rational choice, simple preference or conscious option than it is a case of lethargy and intellectual despondency.

This becomes evidenced when the question is formulated with different indicators - 8 in every 10 Brazilians believe abortion should be dealt with as an issue of public health. This is excellent alleviating news that captures the relativity of the previously unsettling perceptions from the very same study.

As the graph below indicates, barely 1 in every 10 consider abortion to be a matter for the police to deal with.


However, the study also shows that Brazilians revealed their first-hand familiarity with the issue. The numbers are as follows:




What exactly do these figures tell us? Beyond demonstrating that more than 70 million people are familiar on a first-hand basis with the practice of illegal abortion, they indicate that the interruption of a pregnancy could become more accepted by the general public depending on the situation.

Despite the fact that the majority of Brazilians proclaim themselves to be against abortion, 8 in every 10 believe it is acceptable to do so in the following cases:


The responses get more interesting yet: 75% of individuals who stated their opposition to abortion at the beginning showed that when they were faced with a less nuanced question, they were equally in favour of abortion in certain concrete cases.

Finally, when faced with the phrase “I would never interrupt a pregnancy”, half of all women interviewed agreed with the affirmation. However, 33% neither agreed nor disagreed, and 16% expressed disagreement.

Comparing such results with those of another survey also conducted in 2017 by feminist organization “Catholics for the Right to Choose”  (Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir) is curious and intriguing. The public opinion study titled Perceptions Regarding Abortion and Sex Education, carried out by IBOPE Inteligencia reveals valuable information: 64% of Brazilians understand that the decision regarding abortion falls in the hands of the woman, an increase in 3 percentage points in comparison to the same study carried out in 2010. In short, we have a prognosis that entirely calls into question the anti-abortion conservative type of thinking that attempts to portray Brazilian society as intolerant, insensitive and short-sighted when faced with such a reality.

More surprising yet are the responses of those who declared themselves as members of a religious faith. When asked “who should decide if a woman can or cannot interrupt an unwanted pregnancy”, 2/3 of Catholics and 58% of evangelicals agreed that the decision belonged to the woman. These are high figures when compared to those of 2010.

Similarly, the proportion of people interviewed that completely or partly disagreed with prison sentences in the case of abortions is 65% among Catholics and 59% among evangelicals.

There is a tendency to respect those who have been through an abortion, giving them the right to choose what to do with their bodies. 

On the contrary, we have recently published figures by Datafolha from December 2017 that indicate the majority of Brazilians, 57%, believe that a woman should be punished with a prison sentence if she carries out an abortion. However, the percentage of Brazilians in favour of decriminalising the practice increased in the last year from 23% to 36% - 7% of people interviewed were unsure of their position on the matter.

How can we then analyse studies whose results seem to oscillate in accordance with the form that the question takes, and appear to be incoherent? First, we can conclude that there cannot be a full comprehension of what it means to experience an abortion however there is a tendency to respect those who have been through such an experience, giving them the right to choose what to do with their bodies. This represents considerable progress towards a new social norm.

The results presented to us offer us, as feminists fighting for sexual and reproductive rights, important hints on how to confront conservativism and the constant undermining of our struggle. It is possible to take on a more progressive position upon mediating with cold, dogmatic statements by departing from the concrete experiences of the majority who know women that have gone through an abortion.

When faced with a familiar story in practice, the discussion gains corporeality: a face, a path, a history. It is filled with warmth. And slogans finally stop being labels – significant, repetitive voids – and instead become daily experiences.

Through labels, Brazil gains access to what it has never lived through, and it responds to these labels with fears and suspicion of anything new. Fear that helps feed into and nurture sexism and the patriarchy.

Nonetheless, when faced with experience and proximity to those who have experienced, the extreme reactions and calls for punishment tend to become diluted and substituted for understanding, perhaps accommodation.

For feminists, the remaining lessons can be summarized as such: Taboos cannot stand-up against an analysis of Brazilian society’s views on prohibition and recurring restrictions. But the narrative that mobilizes the familiar and the real, and that brings them to the debating chamber, is capable of facing up to the interdictions in place.

For conservatives and reactionaries, women that reclaim exclusive control of their bodies and their sexuality deserve to burn in the bonfire of contempt, of humiliation and intolerance

Feminism has made gains by constructing a narrative of respect for sexual and reproductive rights capable of transforming the conceptions of both conservatives and laypeople alike whilst influencing legislation – but it arouses an angry reaction that triggers a pseudo-morality and a type of criminalisation in order to delegitimise us.

No gain will go unpunished. The patriarchy must speak to overturn any progress gained, and we are here to counter it - and with uncontrollable determination.

During these confrontations, the undermining of the feminist struggle is always attempted: the famous ‘backlash’. A term that in fact has no Portuguese translation but is a known concept to Brazilian women and women everywhere nonetheless. They are the arguments utilized by the patriarchy to transform feminism into something without meaning or value, calling it the work of lunatics and disconnected from reality.

The evidence does not matter: For conservatives and reactionaries, women that reclaim exclusive control of their bodies and their sexuality deserve to burn in the bonfire of contempt, of humiliation and intolerance, akin to those women accused of witchcraft in the Middle Ages. 


Mujeres reclaman la legalización del aborto el jueves por la noche.8 de diciembre de 2016. Avenida Paulista, São Paulo. Imágenes de NurPhoto SIPA USA / PA. Todos los derechos reservados.

Read Faludi, now more than ever.

In 1991, North-American feminist Susan Faludi won the Pulitzer prize with her work “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women”. At that time, Faludi identified a huge movement of regression with its main objective being to turn back the clock to the 1950s. Two central premises provided a basis for this movement:

  1. The idea that feminism had made sufficient gains already and that women and men in the US in the 90s should already be on an equal enough footing with regards to gender roles
  2. The notion that feminism is an exaggeration and unnecessary, whose consequences would be cruel and divisive within personal relationships and counterproductive within the political sphere 

Such premises would have been articulated by a new right that emerged under the presidency of Reagan in the 1970s. This new right would have then become mainstream in the following decades. However, Faludi is clear when reminding us that such messages are also echoed by what are called “emissaries of the left”.

The old hostility of the left towards feminism is part of a bigger phenomenon of the rearticulation of the patriarchy against the gains of women in their pursuit of gender equality

At times of manifestos and aggressive reactions, at times of regression, the Backlash is concealed in many ways: it is there in the shame felt by the man in a tie in Brasília, that is withdrawing our rights to life and laughter, much like the man of the left in his velvet suit. He points out the excesses of supposed identity movements, accusing them of ignoring the class struggle (this is when you know that white men have occupied the top of the social hierarchy for centuries).

We will continue to refine our narratives in order to transcend the ideals they wish to impose on us

We need to be alert and strong, and escape any attempts to maintain the status quo - attempts that manifest themselves with a complete lack of shame in the majority male commissions of Brasília, to those dressed up as an enlightening debate.

Those which capitalize on Kants and cannons of Brazilian political thinking in order for everything to remain the same, for privileges to be guaranteed, and for the feminist struggle to be thrown in the common old ditch of exageration. How many times have we not been called exaggerated, belligerent, and out of control after all?

We have no time to fear death. Nor to waste our energies pampering our allies with fancy remarks. The world is transforming alongside our movement and our collective action on the streets, the corridors of the Three Powers, and social media.

The dogs must bark louder because they are only making our collective grow in number and in potential enabling our resistance and confrontation further. Our colourful collective will sing and dance its way through the world.

And we will continue to refine our narratives in order to transcend the ideals they wish to impose on us.

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