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20/06/2024

Here are 4 threats to legal abortion in Brazil

In the face of attempts to restrict legal abortion in Brazil, the UN recommends that the country ensure the reproductive rights of women and girls

Mulheres protestam contra o projeto de lei 1.904/2024 que equipara aborto após 22 semanas a homicídio na Avenida Paulista, São Paulo, 15 de junho de 2024 (Foto: Marina Uezima / Brazil Photo Press / AFP). Mulheres protestam contra o projeto de lei 1.904/2024 que equipara aborto após 22 semanas a homicídio na Avenida Paulista, São Paulo, 15 de junho de 2024 (Foto: Marina Uezima / Brazil Photo Press / AFP).

In Brazil, the right to abortion is legally guaranteed in specific cases: when the pregnancy is the result of rape; when there is a risk to the life of the pregnant woman and in cases of foetal anencephaly. However, recently, various factors have made access to legal abortion more difficult, including local legislation and administrative acts. 

To further exacerbate this situation, Bill 1904/24 is currently being processed in the Chamber of Deputies. It proposes to amend the Penal Code to equate abortion with the crime of homicide, including in cases of pregnancy resulting from rape. If approved, the bill will punish women who have an abortion after 22 weeks of gestation and the professionals involved in the procedure with imprisonment for between six and twenty years.

Conectas and 22 other organisations have appealed to the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) against the bill. In an urgent appeal sent to international entities on June 13, the Brazilian organizations emphasised that criminalising abortion violates women’s sexual and reproductive health rights, constituting a form of gender violence that can be considered torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, in accordance with Recommendation 35 of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). 

Earlier, in March, Brazilian civil society organisations including Conectas had denounced violations of the right to legal abortion in Brazil to the UN human Rights Council. 

Conectas lists the obstacles being imposed and highlights the UN’s recommendations for Brazil to ensure this right.

1. Restriction of legal abortion in a São Paulo hospital.

The Vila Nova Cachoeirinha Hospital and Maternity, a leading institution for legal abortion services in São Paulo, suspended these services in December 2023. Out of the five municipal hospitals providing this service in the city, Vila Nova Cachoeirinha was the only one performing abortions for pregnancies over 22 weeks. It was also the only one in the entire state of São Paulo. The cessation of this service in such a crucial hospital represents a major setback that directly threatens established reproductive rights.

In addition to compromising access to safe and legal abortion, this suspension leaves many women, girls and pregnant individuals without adequate support in extremely vulnerable situations, worsening a national scenario of rights violations. Out of more than 5,500 Brazilian municipalities, only 200 (3.6%) offer legal abortion services in their healthcare networks, leaving over 37.5 million women of childbearing age without access to the service where they live.

2. Law in Goiás mandates ultrasound for victims of sexual violence.

A new law enacted in January 2024 by the government of Goiás calls for pregnant individuals to bebencouraged to undergo an ultrasound to hear the foetal heartbeat before requesting a legal abortion. This practice is considered to be a form of psychological torture by human rights and reproductive health specialists.

The rights of pregnant individuals are further infringed upon by this initiative as the legislation has designated August 8 as the State Day of Awareness Against Abortion and mandates the holding of lectures and seminars on the “rights of the unborn.” The law also encourages private initiatives and NGOs to recommend women seeking an abortion “to preserve the life of the unborn”.

By imposing this procedure, the law creates an additional and unnecessary barrier to accessing legal abortion in cases of rape, turning a guaranteed right into an even more painful and traumatic process.

3. Suspension of the Health Ministry´s Technical Note

The Technical Note from the Ministry of Health, which instructed professionals to ensure access to legal abortion regardless of gestational age, was suspended by Health Minister Nísia Trindade on 29 February 2024, following significant pressure from conservative parliamentarians. This guidance was crucial for ensuring that all women, girls and pregnant individuals could access safe and legal abortion at any stage of pregnancy.

The technical note overturned the Bolsonaro government´s recommendation that only allowed legal abortion before 21 weeks and 6 days of pregnancy and also stated that “any abortion is a crime”. This recommendation created situations like that of an 11-year old girl who was raped in Santa Catarina and was prevented from having an abortion by the State Judiciary when it was discovered that she was 22 weeks pregnant.

The suspension of the technical note increases insecurity and uncertainty for both healthcare professionals and those entitled to legal abortion, potentially leading to an increase in clandestine and unsafe procedures. A resolution from the Federal Council of Medicine (CFM), which was suspended by the Supreme Federal Court (STF), also prohibited doctors from performing foetal asystole in pregnancies over 22 weeks in cases of legal abortion. This is provided for by law.

4. Bill equating legal abortion to homicide

Bill 1904/24 proposes amendments to the Penal Code that equate abortion with homicide, even in cases of rape. If approved, the bill will impose prison sentences of between six and twenty years on pregnant individuals and healthcare professionals involved in abortions performed after 22 weeks of gestation.

In a tactical move, the Chamber of Deputies approved an urgent request on June 12 to accelerate the processing of the bill. Now, the bill could be voted on in the plenary of the Chamber without going through the relevant committees.

More than 12,500 girls between 8 and 14 years old became mothers in Brazil in 2023. Every 8 minutes, a girl or woman is raped. According to the 2023 Brazilian Public Security Yearbook, 61.4% of rape victims in Brazil are up to 13 years old (10.4% are under 4 years old) and about 70% of the perpetrators are known to the victims. These data highlight the extent of violence against girls in the country.

Therefore, this legislative proposal represents a direct threat to reproductive rights, in addition to criminalising victims of sexual violence.

UN Recommendations

In May 2024, Brazil underwent a review by the UN Committee that monitors the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Committee assessed the state of women’s rights in Brazil and made significant recommendations to safeguard and promote these rights. Among them was the legalisation and decriminalisation of abortion, ensuring access to safe services.

Civil society organisations, including Conectas, submitted reports highlighting violations of sexual and reproductive rights in Brazil. The reports address reduced access to contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections, the worsening of maternal mortality during the COVID-19 pandemic and barriers to accessing legal abortion. Another report focuses on forced pregnancies in childhood and adolescence, emphasizing the alarming number of rapes of vulnerable individuals and births to mothers aged 10 to 14.

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