Pope’s Visit to Brazil Intensifies Abortion Debate

Denise Hirao

The Pope's presence in Brazil represents a challenge for politicians in the world's largest Catholic country, due to an already heated debate between public health concerns and church policy.

As a Brazilian citizen working on reproductive rights and health in Latin America on behalf of the International Women's Health Coalition (IWHC), I have been monitoring the news about Brazil's preparations for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI with great interest. IWHC has worked closely with groups such as Instituto Patricia Galvao and Catholics for the Right to Decide-Brazil, which have successfully advocated for sexual and reproductive rights policies without ignoring the Catholic faith of the majority of the population. Separation of church and state is core to the implementation of these policies.

The Pope's presence in Brazil represents a challenge for politicians in the world's largest Catholic country. This includes President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva himself. In a radio interview earlier this week, President Lula restated his strong personal opposition to abortion, while echoing earlier comments by the country's minister of health stating that abortion must be treated as a public health issue. This statement reignited an already heated debate between government officials and church leaders that posts public health concerns against religious values.

In the months leading up to the Pope's visit, some Brazilian politicians have initiated discussions that threaten the separation between the Catholic doctrine and public policy. Recently, the government conferred about the possible introduction of religious teaching at public schools. Congress is also analyzing a bill that would create a new national holiday in honor of the first saint born in Brazil. The new saint, who will be canonized by the Pope this week, is said to have saved the life of a mother who carried a high risk pregnancy to term and enabled the birth of her son.

President Lula is scheduled to meet with the pope in São Paulo today. The Vatican wants Brazil to sign a treaty that may include the establishment of a Catholic education curriculum at public schools and further obstacles to legalizing abortion. While some Brazilian journalists have suggested that the President is likely to reject the treaty, it is not clear what else the Pope will request in his meeting with President Lula. As Brazil has its own political agenda with the Vatican, which includes the Pope's support on tackling international trade imbalances at the World Trade Organization, advocates worry that sexual and reproductive rights may be at the negotiation table.

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Just as Mexico City's lawmakers defied the Church last month and legalized abortion, Brazil must prioritize women's health and allow informed debate, rather than religion and political trade-offs, dictate policy decisions. The International Women's Health Coalition will continue to work closely with local leading feminist organizations to ensure that the Brazilian secular state implements policies protecting sexual and reproductive health and rights.

For more information, check out the International Women's Health Coalition's work in Brazil, Catholics for the Right to Decide-Brazil, and Instituto Patricia Galvao.

For additional articles in English on the Pope's visit, please visit Sexuality Policy Watch.

You can also find extensive information on the Brazilian media coverage about the visit of the pope on the website of the Commission on Citizenship and Reproduction.

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