In order to properly situate sexual politics in Brazil (while paying special attention to abortion), we must connect it to the broader political scenario of the country as a whole. As reported last month, Brazilian political institutions are becoming increasingly fragile. President Michel Temer’s approval rating stands at 3%, making him the most unpopular president in the world. Despite this, a majority in the Senate voted to end the corruption investigation against him. Despite Temer’s lack of popularity, the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reported that this is the government that has established the most effective relationship with Congress since 1995, having approved several reforms in areas such as labor, education, and (in the future) social security, reforms that constitute a response to extreme neoliberal “market” pressures. Meanwhile, the country continues mired in a deep economic crisis. The financial crises of the various states of the federation remain unresolved and a brutal crisis has overtaken the public healthcare system. Meanwhile, an accelerated transfer of assets to foreign investors, especially (but not exclusively) the Chinese, is underway.
In this complex and volatile context, the growing symptoms of authoritarianism on the part of state actors have not relented. Once again the Brazilian judiciary has shown its conservative face. In judging a demand from the “Schools without Political Party” movement, a judge suspended the rule that disqualifies the writing exercise of the national exam to acccess universities when it contains hate speech or language that violates the premises of human rights. This decision has been appealed to a higher court, but it is not clear whether the final judgment will be given before this year’s examinations.
And, a new sequence of incidents of repression, violence and intolerance was once again registered. In a town in the interior of the state of Paraíba, a young black woman was served with a police arrest warrant after writing (in an authorized graffiti space on a university wall) a quote from famous Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica’s exalting subaltern populations: “Be marginal. Be a hero.” In the south of the country, the operation Ebero had armed police investigating anarchist organizations and students for possessing “reading materials, plastic bottles, and other objects to be considered subversive“. The operation was accompanied and supported by the mainstream media. Shortly before that, in a column in the Folha de S.Paulo, the president of a main chain of cloth stores — who had been accused of labor exploitation analogue to slave conditions – defended himself saying that the accusation derived from a communist conspiracy and argued that he was merely adjusting to today’s more liberal scenario of labor relations. Finally, a far-right group invaded an academic event at the State University of Rio de Janeiro to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
The polemics and censorship measures against art exhibitions that SPW reported in September have also continued. In São Paulo, in the “Stories of Sexuality” exhibition at MASP, the museum blocked the entrance of minors for the first time in its history. This was interpreted as yielding to the demands of the reactionary public that has been promoting censorship of nudity and themes related to sexuality. In Londrina (Paraná) DNA, a performance that had already been censored in Brasília was once again the object of attack by moral conservative groups. The good news, in this case, is that the public protected the artist, resisted the suspension order, negotiated with the police, and guaranteed the performance.
Yet more striking was the attack on Judith Butler that rapidly gained global visbility. In the third week of October, an array of groups — openly right wing formations, the Catholic hierarchy, evangelical Christians, conservative psychologists and the “ Schools without Political Parties” movement — initiated a broad, general, and unrestricted attack on the feminist philosopher, who would be in Brazil in the first week of November for the International Colloquium on the Ends of Democracy (an event counting with the participation of other renowned intellectuals including Butler’s companion Wendy Brown) . Even when Butler was not planned to speak on gender almost 100,000 signatures were collected protesting Butler’s visit as a threat to “the natural order” of gender, sexuality and the family”. Using a rhetoric very similar to that underpinning security discourses, Butler was targetted as an icon of the ideas and people which these groups oppose: feminists, gays, lesbians, trans, intellectuals, leftwingers. She was cast as a generic external enemy in order to promote neo authoritarian and fascist discourses.
The response was, however, immediate. The website of SESC — where the colloquium was to take take place- received a barrage of positive evaluations and was supported by renowned people. Six academic and civil society organizations have also issued official statements of support. João Manuel de Oliveira, who is SPW contributor, wrote a note in which he analysed the the attacks on Butler in the following terms: ” What is happening is a reflection of the precariousness that unites us and this is why Butler is so important to us. This should help us to think of new politics of alliance and novel possibilities for remaking this unjust world”. The feminist philosopher Carla Rodrigues’ has also published an insightful article in which she analyses the meanings of and conditions surrounding Butler’s second visit to Brazil. In our next update we will offre additional information on this shameful and regretful episode.
Focus on Abortion
As we have been remarking for some time now – and as the episodes above demonstrate, especially the attack on Butler — gender and sexuality squarely place at the core of the Brazilian conservative restoration, or to use Wendy Brown’s language, of the country’s de-democratization trends. In the case of Brazil, the attack on abortion rights was the point around which these regressive forces began to cohere from the 1990s on, conquering more and more space during the mid-2000s. As we have mentioned in earlier updates, there are several proposals to restrict abortion currently in front of the Brazilian Congress, including two constitutional amendments that seek to define the right to life from conception on. In daily life, criminal law continues to violate the women’s rights to life and freedom. In Rio de Janeiro, yet another woman has died after an unsafe abortion while another was sentenced to three years in prison (a “light” sentence due to lack of a prior criminal record) for an abortion she performed last year. In the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Amazonas, and Paraíba, three fetuses were found dead: tragedies that tell much about women’s lack of access to information and contraceptives and their despair in situations of unwanted pregnancy.
The news reports of these cases, however, focus on criminalization, completely ignoring the economic situations, gender inequalities, and the conditions of sexuality that may have led these women to risky procedures and extreme measures. By contrast, data presented by UNFPA in its latest report “Worlds Apart” is crucial to understanding the precariousness of Brazilian women’s reproductive lives. Despite decades of investment, the UN reports that there is an unmet contraceptive demand for 4.2 million Brazilian women of reproductive age. Young women are the most affected since 20% of mothers in Brazil are less than 20 years old.
The news that Cytotec distribution will be suspended in France is also worrying when one looks at the Brazilian context. As Marge Berer explains, although the motive for the suspension was not the use of the drug in French programs of pregnancy termination, but rather its obstetric use, it is not yet clear what motivated Pfizer to decide to take this decision. It’s possible that one motive was the company’s ‘discomfort’ in relation to the drug’s use as an abortifacient (check the International Campaign for Women’s Rights to Safe Abortion). In Brazil, this decision matters because although the drug is prohibited in the country, it continues to be used extensively for the interruption of unwanted pregnancies. The title of the article in which the AFP reported the news in Brazil suggests that the suspension is due to this type of use. This sort of journalistic treatment stigmatizes the product, provokes fear in women, and offers arguments to keep the product on the list of prohibited drugs in Brazil.
To counter these regressive trends we have four pieces of good news to report. The Public Ministries of Paraíba and Minas Gerais have issued orders to health institutions that are not in compliance with the laws guaranteeing abortion in the case of rape. More significantly, former Health Minister José Temporão (2007-2010) published an article in the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper in which he highlighted the maternal mortality in Brazil due to clandestine abortions. Temporão reaffirmed that this situation must be treated as a serious public health issue. Additionally, two organizations (Anis – Institute of Bioethics and Think Olga) have come together to create a campaign called #EuVouContar (My abortion story in english), which publishes stories about abortion in order to break the silence, the stigma, and the penalizing visibility that are imposed on women who interrupt pregnancies. The key of the campaign is sharing stories as a way of uniting and welcoming women.
Report by Rajnia de Vito and Angela de Freitas.