BRAZIL – New president of the House opens the road for anti-abortion provisions

by Thais Rodrigues. Edson Sardinha

Brazilian conservative and extreme -right parliamentarians are planning to take advantage of the new President of the House, MP Arthur Lira (from the Partido Progressista) to push through their anti-abortion propositions, which had been shelved by the former president. Having been supported in his election by the House Evangelical group and the Parliamentary Front against Abortion and in Defense of Life, Lira will face much pressure to open the way for tougher legislation against abortion to be adopted. This agenda, however, faces resistance from other quarters in the Congress.

Congresswoman Chris Tonietto (Partido Social Liberal), says that Lira has pledged to support the agenda advocated by the Parliamentary Front against Abortion and in Defense of Life. During the campaign for the presidency of the House, Tonietto delivered a formal demand for the new president to fight against all matters related to gender, sexuality, family, and abortion rights that go against conservative values…. The document also heavily criticizes the Judiciary that, according to Tonietto, is aligned with MPs, senators and parties favourable to women’s right to decide. When asked to comment, however, the new president dodged: “All bills tabled in the House of Representatives will be brought to a vote, whenever they have a majority in the college of leaders or are matured enough in the society”, replied Lira, through his cabinet….

On 4 February, three days after Lira was elected, Congresswoman Carla Zambelli tabled a bill that makes it mandatory for women requesting abortion in the case of rape to present a police report signed by an official medical examiner, that attests to the veracity of the rape. The proposal underscores the content of a Ministry of Health ordinance, released in August 2020, which generated strong negative reactions in Congress and civil society. Besides requiring a police report to authorize a request for abortion in the case of rape, the Ordinance requires two additional procedures: the woman must see an ultrasound of the fetus and submit to the reading aloud of a list of risks resulting from a legal abortion procedure.

The number of anti-abortion law provisions tabled in Congress ,since the beginning of the Bolsonaro administration, has skyrocketed. Between 2019 and 2020, 43 bills were presented that advance harsher laws against the existing ground for pregnancy termination. According to the Center for Feminist Studies and Advisory Services (Cfemea), which monitors public policies involving women’s rights, this number equals the totality of legislative propositions on the subject presented in the House between 1995 and 2018.

None of these bills has been taken up until now, but the Bolsonaro camp in Congress is strongly pushing for this agenda. Elected with the support of Brazilian ultra- Catholics, MP Tonietto, 29 years old, authored 11 of the 43 proposals on abortion that were presented between 2019 and 2020. For example, she presented a bill in May 2019 that would totally repeal article 128 of the Penal Code, with the two grounds on which abortion is currently permitted by law: to save the pregnant woman’s life; and in the case of pregnancy resulting from rape. (Abortion in case of anencephaly was granted through a Supreme Court decision of 2012). It has remained on the shelf so far.

There is only one tabled bill, also not taken up for debate, that supports decriminalisation of abortion. Its author, former congressman Jean Wyllys (PSOL) who resigned from his mandate in 2019 and left the country after being subjected to fierce political persecution and death threats because of his advocacy in favour of human rights, LGBT+ and women’s rights in particular.

In recent years, starting under Dilma Rousseff, there has been a sharp deterioration in the realm of sexual and reproductive health policies, including in relation to access to contraceptives, awareness campaigns on sexuality, and even the right to planning pregnancy. Cfemea points out that in 2013, when an excellent law to protect the victims of sexual violence was passed, groups opposed to abortion presented several bills calling for it to be revoked and at the end, the Ministry of Health gave in to their pressure and never implemented the law properly.

Senator Mara Gabrilli (PSDB), argues that the core of this debate has been totally ignored by Congress: “What we should be debating is women’s health. In Brazil, abortion is performed clandestinely, with precarious and dangerous methods. In other words, the agenda should be public health. This should be the Parliament’s view on the issue, regardless of ideologies.” However, senators who support women’s rights are currently in a minority and can only do their best to contain setbacks.

The article continues with a history of the many efforts to reform the law related to abortion, especially regarding abortion following rape and including rape of children. A case pending before the Supreme Court, scheduled to be heard in September 2020, calling for abortion in cases of rape to be guaranteed, was removed from the agenda as a result of emergency cases related to the Covid-19 pandemic and not been re-scheduled as of March 2021. Many see the intention to remove all rights to a safe, legal abortion as a consequence of the Trump influence, which will not just disappear. Sonia Corrêa agrees with Senator Humberto Costa that the goal of the forces opposing abortion rights is to remove all existing legal grounds from Brazilian legislation, as in Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador – even though this does not at all reflect the views of Brazilian society.

In the week of 15 March 2021, a bill entitled ‘The Statute of the Pregnant Woman’, was tabled in the Senate and began to be processed at high speed in the Senate. The assault has thus formally begun.

THESE ARE EXCERPTS FROM THE FULL REPORT in English at Sexuality Policy Watch, by Thais Rodrigues and Edson Sardinha, 2 March 2021. Originally published in Portuguese on Congresso em Foco, translated by SPW, and revised and updated several days ago by Sonia Corrêa).