September 2016 began under the government of Michel Temer, whose intermediary presidency governed Brazil from May to August while awaiting the results of the impeachment process of President Dilma Rousseff. Temer’s initiation as the reigning president of Brazil gives little hope for positive developments in the fields of sexual and reproductive rights, given the fact that his government has already indicated that it will implement policies that will have pernicious impacts in these fields (see SPW previous analysis).
To begin with, we must look at the discouraging political prospects in the field of abortion rights. The death of 28 year old Caroline Carneiro in August due to a botched abortion undertaken in unsafe and precarious conditions in Rio de Janeiro has been and continues to be largely ignored by the media, health service managers and politicians (although as we have seen in recent years, not much can be expected from these quarters). Heeding the demand of the State Council for Women’s Rights, the Subsecretariat of Women’s Policies of the State Secretariat for Social action and Human Rights established contact with Caroline’s family. The conversations that followed have been maintained in absolute secrecy, however, and cannot be accompanied by civil society at large. Because of this, and unfortunately, it has thus been impossible for us to follow the case, aside from reading the predictable lamentations and occasional articles published in the mass media.
For this reason, it is surprising that the Attorney General of the Republic (Procurador Geral da República), Rodrigo Janot, has come out in favor of the right of abortion for women infected with the Zika virus, in consonance with a case brought before the Brazilian Supreme Court by the National Association of Public Defenders (ANADEP). In his briefing for the court, Janot claimed that reproductive autonomy, and the right to physical and psychological integrity are fundamental rights of women that are violated by the criminalization of abortion for women infected by Zika. It’s worth noting that this position comes from the man currently in command of the “Lava-Jato” operation, which has investigated and denounced corruption at the highest levels in Brasilia, including among members of the current government. Women’s movements received Janot’s proclamation positively, although the current political scenario is too complex to predict what the outcome of this action will be, especially when one takes into consideration unforeseen developments which may occur in Brasilia’s political spheres.
Janot’s initiative followed two negative briefings placed before the Supreme Court: the first signed by the Main Legal Counsel for the Union (Advogado Geral da União), Fábio Medina Osório, and the second emitted by the Federal Senate Legal Board. Both of these briefings allege that the proposal violates the right to life. The Federal Senate Legal Board’s briefing can be read in its entirety here (In Portuguese). After Janot’s briefing was submitted, President Michel Temer dismissed the Main Legal Counsel for the Union and conveniently placed a woman in his cabinet after being the target of criticisms that he had only nominated men to be Ministry heads after his interim government took power in May. Grace Fernandes Mendonça took up her new responsibilities claiming that she would not quash the Lava-Jato operation, an accusation that the Federal Government has been trying to disarm, in spite of indications to the contrary. Mendonça, however, then no longer talked about the question of abortions for women infected by Zica. This is understandable, because she had earlier been the Secretary of the MLCU’s Litigation sector during Osório’s stewardship of the Counsel and was one of the authors of the briefing opposing ANADEP’s case.
In the week following these shifts, Federal deputy Eduardo Cunha, ex-president of the Chamber of Deputies and leader of the impeachment process against ex-president Dilma Rousseff, as well as a member of the Evangelical Christian caucus in Congress, was stripped of his political rights and positions by a devastating vote: 450 of his colleagues voted to rescind Cunha’s mandate, even though he was one of the most powerful presidents in the history of the Chamber and a staunch defender of conservative and reactionary positions, most particularly regarding abortion. Cunha is one of the authors of the famous Bill 5069/2013 that would impede women’s access to legal abortions in the case of rape. This bill generated a strong national reaction among women’s rights movements at the end of last year, when the text was approved by the Constitution and Justice Commission of the Chamber.
Contradictory signals have also appeared in the media in September, especially after Veja magazine, following the ANADEP case in the Supreme Court, made mention of its famous 1997 cover in which women, among them public figures, spoke about the experience of interrupting their pregnancies. Veja is a crucial actor, along with other mass media outlets, in the conservative restoration that is currently in motion, it is therefore curious that it has revisited topic through a positive lens in the middle of what is perhaps the most unfavorable political scenario for human rights in recent times, with social rights being threatened left and right. It’s also worth commenting the on-line public consultation promoted by the Brazilian Senate with regards to Legislative Suggestion #15, which proposes to legalize the interruption of pregnancies up to the twelfth week in the Brazilian public health care system, SUS. Why is it that this consultation was pushed in September, the middle of such an unfavorable political situation? The percentage of votes favoring the legalization of abortion in this poll was at 55.7% on the 14th of September, having dropped, however, to 51.7% , in the first week of October.
Most importantly, the abortion question cannot be seen in isolation. It is attached to other conservative proposals that have taken shape since the change in government. For example, a bill was tabled in September by the House Representative Rômulo Gouveia (PSD-PB), which requires hospitals to report abortions or attempted abortions to the police. This bill is a flagrant violation of women’s dignity and also contradicts the Technical Norms published by the Ministry of Health regarding the prevention and treatment of effects resulting from sexual violence against women and adolescents. Representative Gouveia, it should be said, is committed to various other regressive agendas, such as pushing for the reduction in age of criminal responsibility, a legal change approved last year.
Finally and perhaps more importantly, the 28th of September – The Day of Struggle for the Decriminalization of Abortion – was the better organized and exciting in the last ten years. A feminist uprising took place, which put the topic on the country’s social networks for 24 hours. Organizations and groups that are in favor of the legalization of the practice emphasized the deleterious effects that criminalization causes for women’s health.
The Finadas do Aborto, together with other groups, organized a street performance in Rio de Janeiro in order to call attention to the importance of the debate over the risks of criminalization (click here to see more pictures of the performance). We must also cite the study (In Portuguese) produced by Flávia Biroli (Unb), which analyzed the conditions of the debate regarding sexual and reproductive rights in the current legislature’s Chamber of Deputies, as well as the dossier (In Portuguese) produced by the National Front Against the Criminalization of Women and for the Legalization of Abortion.
On the other hand as this panorama of sexual and reproductive rights in Brazil was being written, the country’s municipal elections revealed a not very optimistic picture. Firstly, there was a quantitative loss in female representation. Although 51% of the Brazilian population is composed of women, only 639 were elected mayor in the 2016 elections, representing some 11.6% of the mayoral positions that were being disputed. In 2012, 663 women (11.9%) were elected mayor. Men continue to prevail in executive office, with 88.4% of the elected positions. This reading should not be linear, however. If, on the one hand, the municipal elections have shown the strength of the conservative turn, as Alberto Dines has argued in the Press Observatory (In Portuguese), making 2016 a watershed year for Brazilian politics, the new composition of Brazil’s city councils shows some signs for hope. In 2017, 106 female city council members will be active in the country’s capitals, replacing the 98 whose mandates end this December. But perhaps the most important element, as Carla Rodrigues (In Portuguese) reminds us is the quality of these representatives: many of these new city council members are women engaged in the human rights struggle from an intersectionalist perspective. Examples of representative victories in this sense are those of black women such as Marielle Franco (RJ), Talíria Petrone (Niterói) and Áurea Carolina (Belo Horizonte), as well as Fernanda Melchionna (Porto Alegre), whose campaigns sought to show the distinct yet interconnected types of inequality (race, gender, class, origin and etc.). Feminists also celebrated the election of Ilza Cruz in Cruz das Amas (Recôncavo Baiano), who is an activist in the black women’s movement. Finally, we also need to mention the electoral results of Indianara (PSOL/RJ), a transsexual rights activist and prostitute, who gained enough votes to win a position as a substitute city council woman, and ex-Minister Nilcea Freire (PSOL/RJ) who lost a position as a substitute by only 700 votes.
With regards to abortion and sexual and reproductive rights specifically, the challenge that faces is to begin moving these debates from the national level, where they have generally always been, to local and municipal levels, where the new contours of Brazilian politics are being drawn.