By Fábio Grotz and Sonia Corrêa
A new chapter of the ongoing institutional debate on abortion rights in Brazil is scheduled for August 3rd and 6th, as a public hearing has been convened by Judge Rosa Weber of the Supreme Court (STF) to discuss ADPF 442/2017 , presented to the March 2017 by the feminist NGO Anis and PSOL, and that interrogates the constitutionality of articles 124 and 125 of the Penal Code that criminalizes abortion. In the history of the Court, ADPF 442/2017 is the lawsuit in relation to which the largest number entities have requested to be heard. By late June 2018, forty Amici Curi had been deposited in the Court, twenty-nine of them supporting the arguments of the initial petition.
When she made public the first list of 44 names selected to participate in the hearing, Judge Weber declared that the practice of abortion “is a very sensitive and delicate juridical theme, as it involves reasoning concerning ethical, moral and religious orders as well as the protection of fundamental individual rights“. As soon as the list was made public, however, forces that oppose abortion rights presented a judicial embargo to the list, alleging that its composition was imbalanced and contesting the participation of international specialists. After that, Judge Weber — albeit having initially underlined that the composition of the list reflected the spectrum of positions comprised in the forty Amici Curi – added to the list six participants, most of them representing religious communities. Concurrently, in the last few weeks, anti-abortion forces began openly threatening the feminist anthropologist Débora Diniz, professor and coordinator of ANIS, who has received many letters of support from academic institutions. These voices have also increased their tone against ADPF 442/2017 in Congress, press vehicles and social networks.
The trajectory that has taken the Brazilian debate on the right to abortion towards the Supreme Court is long and complex and deserves a more detailed analysis, in particular, because this pathway is now openly attacked by forces that radically oppose abortion. For now, however, we just want to remind that, in a highly unfavorable political environment, this option has effectively opened a wedge of resistance and mobilization of plural voices in support of the sexual and reproductive autonomy of women. This is far from trivial. Not surprisingly, as the date of the public hearing approach, tensions and controversies have intensified having at the backdrop the conservative hegemony installed in Brazilian politics since the 2016 impeachment. But what is happening in Brazil right now must also be situated in relation to the effects of recent victories achieved in relation to abortion rights in Ireland and Argentina and the reactions they have propelled in the anti-abortion camp. (see a compilation)
Ireland, Argentina and the Brazilian media: Virtuous effects
On May 25th, 66 percent of voters approved the proposition of a referendum calling for the elimination of the constitutional clause, adopted in 1983, to protect life from conception. The Irish feminist movements and other supporters of abortion rights have taken the streets flagging green scarfs to mark an unequivocal victory in a predominantly Catholic country in which the Catholic hierarchy retains much influence over politics. On June 14th, the Argentinean House of Representatives approved, in a very tight voting, a provision that grants the right to abortion on request until the 14th week of pregnancy with access to free of charge services. During July, the provision will be processed by Senate. President Macri already signaled that if approved he will sanction the law. Multitudes have taken over the streets also using green scarfs, the main icon of the feminist Campaign for the Right to Safe, Legal and Free Abortion. Despite the opposition and the tight voting, from the politic point of view it this was an unquestionable victory of the feminist movement and other actors supporting the right to reproductive autonomy in Argentina and Latin America as a whole.
The outcome was also well received by the mainstream press in the country and its echoes have crossed borders. In Brazil, both Ireland and Argentina had ample repercussion in the mainstream media, which both informed about the political processes and made connections with the national debate underway that has ADPF 442/2017 at its center. The positive reporting registered in Folha de São Paulo, El País – Brazil, Marie Claire, Carta Capital is not surprising, given that these vehicles have for some time expressed their support for legal abortion. BBC Brazil, which in the past has addressed the topic on many occasions, also began a series of investigative reports that had many repercussions but also triggered severe critiques. Its coverage is the object of a specific analysis by Fabio Grotz. But within this wider positive response, there was a novelty. O Globo newspaper that, not long time ago has been openly against the legalization of abortion and even more recently has not dared to go further than suggest a plebiscite on the matter, has published an editorial that fully supports the ADPF 442/2017 proposition (in Portuguese). The text acknowledges abortion as a major public health issue and calls for a secular response to address its detrimental effects.
If the 2018 green wave is to be highly valued, in Brazil and elsewhere, we cannot lose sight of the chain of reactions it has propelled in the anti-abortion rights camp, in particular on part of the Vatican. In Ireland, the Catholic Church reaction to the referendum result was more lamenting than outrageous. The bishops worryingly recognized that Irish people are now distant from the Church and almost immediately announced that the pope will visit the country in August, a trip that may impact on the legal process that will ensure the referendum. The Argentinean voting, on the other hand, provoked a virulent response on the part of the Vatican. Less than 48 hours later, Pope Francis I, taking a sharp distance from the benevolent rhetoric that characterizes most of his declarations, evoked German Nazi eugenic practices of abortion to criticize the outcome. The declaration had ample repercussion and triggered many critical responses including two Argentinean articles retracing the connections between the Vatican and the Nazi regime (here in Spanish and here). The sharp difference between the two reactions suggests that a defeat “at home” has infuriated Cardinal Bergoglio. Furthermore, his stridency in relation to Argentina makes us suppose that the Vatican will use all means possible to prevent the subsequent lawmaking processes in both countries to reach a favorable outcome to abortion rights.
Inevitably, the Brazilian abortion debate is also under this radar. Strong signs of that could be identified in the arguments raised in a seminar jointly sponsored by the House and the Senate in Brasilia, on May 30th, to discuss ADPF 442/2017. In that occasion, attacks were made not only on the abortion contents of the lawsuit but, most principally, the legitimacy of the Supreme Court to discuss the constitutionality of the criminal law was drastically contested. The same argument was used in a response to the O Globo editorial signed by a state level legislator belonging to the PPL (Free Nation Party) from Paraná. Ironically enough, the article appraises the Irish and Argentinean decisions as democratic in order to assert that the discussion of the right to abortion by the Supreme Court is anti-democratic and infringes on the rights of the majority.
This is not exactly a trivial turn in the argumentation against abortion rights. It definitely leaves behind religious tenets, while at the same time inscribing the issue in the new strategy designed by the Vatican to mobilize religious citizenship worldwide, which has been insightfully analyzed by Juan Marco Vaggione in a recent article (in Spanish) that very soon will be published in English by SPW. In Brazil, as in many other contexts, even when mobilized by Catholicism, this appeal to active religious citizenship has many other potential adherents, especially neo-Pentecostal Evangelicals.
The forces that, in Brazilian society, claim for abortion rights must be attentive to this shift, search for a better understanding of its meaning and map out its potential impacts. In the same manner, the mainstream media – which appears to be increasingly aligned with the respect and promotion of sexual and reproductive autonomy and secular tenets of lawmaking– is also challenged to shift the coverage of the debate towards other angles. It is critical that abortion rights begin to be more systematically addressed by the press as a matter of constitutional principles — dignity, gender, racial and social equality and the right to health- as well as subject squarely inscribed at the heart of contemporary debates on the meaning and direction of democratic institutions.
 As follows: the Brazilian Jewish Confederation, the Brazilian Federation of Spiritualists, the Federation of Muslim Associations of Brazil, the Federation of Afro- Brazilian Cults, the Brazilian Buddhist Society and the State of Sergipe.