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Religious-Based Political Parties and Groups Continue to Resist Women’s SRHRs in Brazil

FRIDAY FILE - Brazil has been discussing possible legislation known as “Estatuto do Nascituro” - the Statute of the Unborn Child. AWID spoke to Executive coordinator of Catholics for the Right to Decide (CDD/BR) Rosângela Talib about how this, and other similar proposals, will affect women’s sexual and reproductive and health rights (SRHRs), and the particular challenges that religious-based political parties bring to women’s struggle for these rights.

By Gabriela De Cicco

AWID: What abortion legislation currently exists in Brazil?

Rosângela Talib (RT): The Criminal Code of 1940, which is still in force, defines abortion as a crime in Title I, Chapter I, Crimes Against the Person. However Article 128 exempts women from punishment where an abortion is necessary because of risks to pregnant mother's life or cases, where pregnancy has resulted from rape, and is performed by doctors. Law No. 12.845/2013 approved on 1 August 2013 by the President of the Republic provides for abortion care services in these cases, which are provided in the national health care system.

AWID: What role have religious groups played in advancing or impeding women’s rights in Brazil?

March at the World Social Forum, 2005.

RT: Religious fundamentalisms have been a source of obstacles for the advancement of Brazilian women’s human rights. This is due to their constant efforts to violate the secularity of the state, starting from an ideology in which both family life and political organization are subject to an ultraconservative belief that women and girls should be controlled and their rights rejected. Fundamentalisms are reflected in the actions of conservative groups organized in partisan politics (including the formation of parliamentary groups), interfering with the passing of laws and in the implementation of public policies. We are currently seeing an upsurge of these religious fundamentalisms, and thus a reemergence of moral conservatism, a rigidity of customs and a crystallization of gender inequality.

They are attempting to criminalize women, violating their fundamental rights and impeding them from exercising their sexual and reproductive rights (SRRs). There are many examples of the use of these strategies: efforts to prohibit the distribution of emergency contraceptives in some parts of the country; a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission (CPI) proposal on abortion; an attempt to criminalize around 10,000 women in Mato Grosso do Sul for allegedly having an abortion at a private clinic; the impact and controversy surrounding the publication of the 3rd National Human Rights Program (PNDH3); and the presentation of the Statute of the Unborn in the House of Representatives and its approval at the Commission on Social Security and Family.

It is also important to note that the Brazilian Federal Government itself has been the agent of violations of the secularity of the state. Some recent examples are: the agreement signed between Brazil and the Vatican, which grants privileges to the institutionalized Catholic religion such as, inter alia, the imposition of religious education in the public schools, which has often been used for Christian religious proselytism – Catholic or evangelical – in flagrant disregard of the secularity of the state. In May 2011, President Dilma Rousseff yielded to pressure from religious fundamentalist groups against anti-homophobia advocacy kits (consisting in specific educational materials such as booklets and videos), which were to be distributed in public schools to combat prejudice against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals/transgendered (LGBTT), by banning the distribution of the kit. A clear disregard for the secularity of the State of Brazil.

AWID: What is the Statute of the Unborn Child (Bylaw)?

RT: The authors of the Statute of the Unborn Child (PL 478/2007) are from the Frente Parlamentar Mista em Defesa da Vida (Mixed Parliamentary Front in Defense of Life [1]) and pending debate in the Constitution, Justice and Citizenship Commission it will then proceed to the Senate. The draft bill was approved in 2010, in the Family and Social Security Commission of the Chamber of Deputies. In 2013, the proposal was advanced again and was approved by the Finances and Tax Commission.

The draft bill recognizes the embryo as a human being. It ensures the protection of fetuses fertilized in vitro, prohibiting the manipulation, freezing, disposal and sale of human embryos. It establishes measures to ensure psychological counseling for pregnant women victims of rape who wish to continue the pregnancy, guiding them towards a possible adoption. In the case of an identified assailant – "parent", he will be required to pay alimony; in the case of unidentified assailant, the State shall be responsible for paying the pension until the child reaches the age of majority ("rape aid fund”). In cases of fetal malformation, the bill ensures “all existing therapeutic and prophylactic means to redress or minimize the disability, independently of expected extra-uterine survival.”

To force a parental mandatory relationship between the woman and her attacker is atrocious. The Statute reduces the woman to merely her reproductive role, with no regard for her SRHRs, including rights to bodily autonomy, mandating that in the case of an unwanted pregnancy, a woman should give the child up for adoption.

AWID: Recently a Bill related to the protocol that should be followed in hospitals with victims of sexual violence and/or rape, was approved by the Senate and awaits the president's endorsement. What does the bill consist in? Who are the key actors promoting and challenging it?

RT: PLC 03/2013 of 1 August 2013 was approved on by the President Dilma Rouseff as Law 12.845/2013, which provides for the mandatory and full care of individuals who have been victims of sexual violence.

To prevent its passing, religious groups, including National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), evangelicals and spiritists who were represented by Members of Parliament as well as representatives of civil society requested to veto Items IV and VII of Article 3[2]. Opponents to the bill allege that the term "prevention of pregnancy" contained in Item IV would be a disguised form of decriminalizing abortion. Item VII, on the provision of information to victims on their legal rights while being treated in health care facilities, was considered an inappropriate procedure.

Catholics, feminist organizations, independent feminists, parliamentary representatives of the women’s caucus of the National Congress, and representatives of the School Board-Psychology and Anthropology twice met with ministers of the State to provide reasons why it would be inappropriate not to pass the law in its entirety. Firstly, this would be an opportunity to regulate abortion care for victims of sexual violence in the public health care services, which was governed by the Technical Regulations by the Ministry of Health’s due to a lack of legislative regulation. Second, the alleged reasons for the veto of Para. IV is false, because it referred to the distribution of emergency pill and finally, Paragraph VII is an acquired right of individuals, because it is not possible to deprive individuals of legal information to which they are entitled.

We were also successful in our strategy to disseminate information to the media about what was taking place.

AWID: How frequently does religious rhetoric enter the abortion debate and what are the challenges related to religious institutions’ involvement in law making processes?

RT: There is constant religious rhetoric on the abortion debate. We currently have the Pro-Life Mixed Parliamentary Front against abortion and the Evangelical Parliamentary Front (73 members), established in 15 states with over 100 state legislators. This group has made proposals for the withdrawal of the legislation in force aimed at making abortion a crime in any circumstance. Also, it has prevented the progress of the legislation with regard the sexual rights and reproductive rights of sex workers.

In civil society, Movimento Nacional da Cidadania pela Vida Brasil sem Aborto (Pro-life National Citizens’ Movement – Brazil Without Abortion), has guided the conservative media.

In addition to the economic power of militants who call themselves "pro-lifers", their increasing aggressiveness and their lobbying actions together with Members of Parliament and judges, are increasingly using strategies, including inter alia: a) complex anti-choice arguments, which use pseudo-scientific discourse (which often based on false premises) and the use of arguments with a more sophisticated internal logic; and b) the use of the police apparatus and the judiciary to intimidate and restrict women, depriving them of their human rights.

There is need to continue the discussion on sexual rights and reproductive rights in the media, with youth, and with the general population, and to continue advocacy in Parliament, to ensure that fundamentalist religious groups don’t succeed in pushing back women’s hard fought for SRHRs


Translated by Barbara Hall

[1] Luiz Bassuma, Michael Martini, Odair Cunha, Sueli Vidigal, Jusmari de Oliveira, Henrique Afonso, Flavio Bezerra and Cleber Green.

[2] The immediate care required in all hospitals in the SUS (Unified health system) network, which comprises the following services: IV) prevention of pregnancy; VII) provision of information to victims on legal rights and all health services available.