The front slide image is a detail of Social Fabric, a drawing by the Brazilian artist Rosana Paulino
Article by Sonia Corrêa and Fábio Grotz *
In Brazil, the proposition to legalize abortion presented to Congress (known as SUG 15/2014) held its final public hearing at the Senatorial Committee on Human Rights. On September 24th, four people spoke in favor of the legalization of abortion: the demographer José Eustáquio Alves, the gynecologist Olimpio Moraes Filho, and the feminists Maria José Rosado Nunes from Catholics for a Free Choice Brazil and Maria Teresa Blandon, coordinator of the Nicaraguan organization, La Corriente. The voices against abortion that were present were the Portuguese lawyer Stella Barbas, the Polish priest and current Brazilian resident, Pedro Stepien, Adelice Leite Godoy D’avila, and the lawyer Nazareno Feitosa. All three were representing the Brazilian Pro-Life Movement.
At this final opportunity to speak before the Senate, the anti-abortion voices, by and large, insisted upon the same ‘theses’ developed by their partners in previous discussions. These included the hypothesis that, if legalized, the number of abortions would skyrocket, the perceived (false) manipulation of Brazilian abortion rights advocates at the hands of “external forces” (for example, the United Nations), and the use of bogus, erroneous data on the negative economic and demographic effects of legal abortion. It should be noted that the lawyer Barbas focused on the judicial and legal interpretations of the right to life, perhaps in response to the proposal made by Sonia Corrêa at the end of the August 6th hearing, in which she stated that the current debate in the Senate should directly address the “right to life”.
The main focus Barbas’s argument was the right to life from the moment of conception that, in her own interpretation, is solidly enshrined in Article 4 of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, also known as the Pact of San José. This document is persistently claimed by anti-abortion advocates in Latin America as justification for their views. When considering this strategy, however, it is always necessary to remember that this San Jose definition has been the subject of wide jurisprudential interpretations, which often contest the absolute understanding of the matter as propelled by conservatives’ voices. One stark example of this was the Inter-American Court on Human Rights 2011 judgment of the Artavia Murillo case in which it concluded that the protection of the right to life, under Article 4 of the American Convention, is not absolute, but rather gradual and incremental according to its development (See Submission by Brazilian Organizations on the Right to Life).
In terms of the arguments developed by the abortion rights advocates, it is interesting to begin with Dr. Alves. He brought to the debate consistent economic and demographic data to directly contest the arguments raised at the previous hearing that claimed that the legalization of abortion would have a negative impact on economic growth and social security financing. Dr. Moraes focused mainly on the dramatic empirical realities experienced by women who do not have money to pay for a safe illegal abortion, as well as experienced by public health professionals who have to cope daily with the effects of criminalization. One of his central arguments was that if the detrimental effects of illegal abortion affected the wives and daughters of parliamentarians – who would be able to resort to safe services– abortion would be legal in Brazil. Maria José Rosado emphasized that maternity cannot be compulsory but must be the result of women’s desire and a voluntary decision. Maria Teresa Blandon described the situation in Nicaragua where abortion became completely illegal in 2006. She reiterated to the hearing that this moral reform was merely a smokescreen to cover both corruption and the inefficiencies of public policy. She spoke of the many women who have needlessly lost their lives because access to therapeutic abortion has been denied to them , not only in cases of more fatal diseases such as cancer, but also even in less lethal cases such as tubal pregnancies. The final public hearing also gave time for the audience to express their opinions and several feminists took to the floor to do so (see compilation of the materials in Portuguese for more detail).
The public debates in the Senate triggered by SUG 15/2014 are now finalized. The expected next step will be the preparation of a report on the subject by the rapporteur on the proposition, Senator (and pastor) Magno Malta who, as informed in our previous reporting on the matter, has also tabled an Amendment provision to ordain the right to life at conception as consecrated within the text of Constitution itself. These series of hearings were significant for pro-choice advocates as a platform to make their voices more widely heard. In other aspects, while it is always risky to predict how a legislative path may evolve, many signs are easily detectable in the wider congressional environment, and suggest that conditions for abortion related legislation might have worsened since the SUG 14 debates began in May 2015.
For example, as the Senate debate evolved, in the House law provision 5069/2013 was nearly approved by the Commission on Constitution and Justice. This provision, authored by MP Eduardo Cunha, current president of the House, aims to criminalize whomever may disseminate information on abortion, with aggravated penalties if that individual is a public servant; and proposes the suspension of Law 12.843/15 that regulates health services providing support for female victims of assault and violence, particularly services that offer emergency contraception and abortion procedures in the case of rape. In a last minute effort, progressive parliamentarians requested that the text to be reviewed and a public hearing be held on the matter. The hearing took place on October 1st and final voting at the Commission is expected to take place quite soon.
Since his election in early 2015, the new House President Rep. Eduardo Cunha has strongly been pushing for a review of the internal rules of congressional procedure in order to facilitate and therefore accelerate the passage of constitutional amendments. Should his enterprise succeed, the two proposals tabled on the right to life at conception (both in the House and the Senate) will be high on the list of priorities. Yet even before that, it should be stated that the right to life at conception has been already included into a piece of partially approved legislation. This legislation is the Statute of the Family, which was proposed by the religious conservative block within the House in 2013 and whose passage was sped up in the current legislature.
The Statute was subject to a Special Commission that worked very quickly and its approval coincided with the last public hearing on legal abortion in the Senate (September 24th). The provision defines the family as the basic unit of society and as a union between a man and woman, calling for special public attention to this specific type of family. It is quite bluntly the conservative legislative response to the 2011 Supreme Court Decision on same–sex civil unions, which eventually became a judicial administrative decision allowing for the full right to marry. But it is crucial to underline here that, as it has been approved, the Statute of the Family is already a legal vehicle with means to curtail the existing legal options for women to terminate a pregnancy in the cases of life and death, rape, or an anencephalic fetus. Its article 3 reads as follows:
“It is the duty of the State, of society and of public powers to ensure to the family entity the effectiveness of the right to life from the moment of conception, [and] to the right to health, to food, to housing, to culture, to recreation, to work, to citizenship and community life.
The approval of the Statute has triggered outrage and reaction from a wide range of sectors. Gender and sexuality units of public universities, which tend to be very cautious in expressing open political stances on legislative matters, have called for a week of protest against the legislation. However, the extremely negative implications of the provision in terms of women’s reproductive autonomy have not been made as publicly visible as needed.
The normal procedure would require that the text be now sent to the Senate for final approval. But again progressive parliamentarians have expressed dissent requesting that the provision is sent to a plenary vote before its final Senate review vote, which means that the pace will be a bit slower . The speed and outcome of this legislative process is also dependent upon overall unstable and complex Brazilian political conditions, whose developments are not easily predictable either.
Despite the scale of risks and pitfalls, a proactive series of events has been scheduled at the congressional level for October with the goal of pressuring parliamentarians. This will culminate in a string of cultural manifestations and political demonstrations against the Statute, planned to be held across the country on October 20th. Within this mobilizing effort, both LGBT and abortion rights movements – whose dynamics have been far from convergent in the last few years – must be return to consistent collaboration. Of the upmost importance, perhaps, persuasive arguments must be crafted that articulate the right to love and diversity — which underlies the wider social outrage against the Statute of the Family — with the right to desire and decide on matters related to reproduction.
* The article was reviewed by Jacob Milner
 The reaction against the provision was led, amongst others three female parliamentarians: Jandira Feghali (PCdoB), Erika Kokay (PT) and Cristiane Brasil (PTB).
 Erika Kokay (PT was once again the main actress in this strategy. It should also be noted that the subsequent legislative process at the Senate level may entirely change the text , or even stall the debate all together on the topic, as there is another provision being processed that addresses the rights of families in their plural forms.