Brazil: The Long Fight for Abortion Rights

Karim Velasco

Despite shocking maternal health indicators, Brazil's Congress recently voted down a bill that would have legalized abortion.

The fight for the decriminalization
of abortion has lost another battle in Latin America. After a 17
year campaign for a bill that would legalize abortion,
last week the Justice and Constitution Committee of the Brazilian Congress
voted 57 to 4 against the bill. This overwhelming rejection to
protect women’s lives is certainly discouraging.

According to Brazil’s
Penal Code, abortion is only legally allowed under two circumstances:
to save the woman’s life and in cases of rape. The punishment for
performing illegal abortions ranges from one to four years imprisonment.
However, as it is common practice in Latin American countries, getting
the authorization to have an abortion when the pregnant woman’s life
is at risk is usually difficult, although it is legal.

The draft bill voted
down last week would have excluded abortion from the Penal Code.
Although this proposal had been stuck in the Congress since 1991, parliamentarians
from the ruling party decided to get the debate back on track given
the Health Minister’s public statement in favor of legalizing abortion
last year. This started a fierce campaign from supporters and opponents
of the decriminalization of abortion.

Earlier this year Ipas
Brazil launched the campaign "Does criminalizing abortion solve the
problem? Think about it,"
that included a video
seeking "to stimulate debate about the fairness of the Brazilian abortion
law." The video certainly demonstrates that ordinary Brazilian people
have mixed feelings or are dubious on whether a woman who has an abortion deserves to go to jail, despite opposing abortion itself. Ipas’ concern on this issue
was particularly grounded in the findings of a research they conducted with the University
of Rio de Janeiro on the impact of unsafe abortion in Brazil. The research
found that every year 250,000 women and girls are hospitalized at public
health facilities due to complications related to induced abortions.
The study suggests that this figure actually means that approximately
a million clandestine abortions occur in the country in a year, as for
every woman that is hospitalized there are four other ones that do not
need or do not look for medical attention and hence go unreported.

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A Shadow Report submitted last year by the Center for Reproductive
Rights to the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
against Women (CEDAW) pointed out that "In
Brazil alone, the WHO [World Health Organization] calculates that 8,700
women die from complications related to childbirth and pregnancy every
year." The report highlights the fact that this situation is
even more serious because mortality rates are considerably higher "among
black, indigenous, and single women living in the poorest regions of

According to UNFPA’s
2007 State of World Population report, the maternal mortality rate in Brazil is estimated
to be 260 deaths for every 100,000 live births, the third highest in
South America after Bolivia and Peru. For the CEDAW Committee this indicates "precarious socio-economic
conditions, low levels of information and education, family dynamics
associated with domestic violence and particularly difficult access
to quality health services."

However, despite of the
shocking indicators, little could be done to persuade a significant number
of parliamentarians to vote for decriminalizing abortion. The
pressure from well-organized conservative movements and the church was
overwhelming and so intense that some parliamentarians who were against
the draft bill even carried photos of aborted and mutilated fetuses hanging
from their necks during the hearing and voting process. Even the Pope’s
visit to Brazil in 2007 became an important stage for anti-choice campaigners to advocate against the bill. Benedict XVI played his role as
the head of the church and during his visit urged Brazilians to respect
life beginning at conception. For anti-choicers, having the Pope as their advocate was priceless in a country with the largest Catholic population in the world!

Fortunately, in May last
year President Lula announced the implementation of a new Family Planning
Program that would include the massive delivery of contraceptive methods
and a large educational campaign all over the country. The Health
Ministry has already started the free distribution of condoms in secondary
public schools following the launch of the government’s own condoms
manufacturer company. Let’s hope that the Family Planning Program
is fully implemented and represents the first of many steps to be taken
to counteract the legal restrictions affecting Brazilian women’s right
to reproductive freedom.

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News Law and Policy

Anti-Choice Group: End Clinic ‘Bubble Zones’ for Chicago Abortion Patients

Michelle D. Anderson

Chicago officials in October 2009 passed the "bubble zone" ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support.

An anti-choice group has announced plans to file a lawsuit and launch a public protest over Chicago’s nearly seven-year-old “bubble zone” ordinance for patients seeking care at local abortion clinics.

The Pro-Life Action League, an anti-choice group based in Chicago, announced on its website that its lawyers at the Thomas More Society would file the lawsuit this week.

City officials in October 2009 passed the ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support. The law makes it illegal to come within eight feet of someone walking toward an abortion clinic once that person is within 50 feet of the entrance, if the person did not give their consent.

Those found violating the ordinance could be fined up to $500.

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Harassment of people seeking abortion care has been well documented. A 2013 survey from the National Abortion Federation found that 92 percent of providers had a patient entering their facility express personal safety concerns.

The ordinance targets people seeking to pass a leaflet or handbill or engaging in “oral protest, education, or counseling with such other person in the public way.” The regulation bans the use of force, threat of force and physical obstruction to intentionally injure, intimidate or interfere any person entering or leaving any hospital, medical clinic or health-care facility.

The Pro-Life Action League lamented on its website that the law makes it difficult for anti-choice sidewalk counselors “to reach abortion-bound mothers.” The group suggested that lawmakers created the ordinance to create confusion and that police have repeatedly violated counselors’ First Amendment rights.

“Chicago police have been misapplying it from Day One, and it’s caused endless problems for our faithful sidewalk counselors,” the group said.

The League said it would protest and hold a press conference outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in the city’s Old Town neighborhood.

Julie Lynn, a Planned Parenthood of Illinois spokesperson, told Rewire in an email that the health-care provider is preparing for the protest.

“We plan to have volunteer escorts at the health center to make sure all patients have safe access to the entrance,” Lynn said.

The anti-choice group has suggested that its lawsuit would be successful because of a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled a similar law in Massachusetts unconstitutional.

Pam Sutherland, vice president of public policy and education for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune back then that the health-care provider expected the city’s bubble zone to be challenged following the 2014 decision.

But in an effort to avoid legal challenges, Chicago city officials had based its bubble zone law on a Colorado law that created an eight-foot no-approach zone within 100 feet of all health-care facilities, according to the Tribune. Sidewalk counselor Leila Hill and others challenged that Colorado law, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it in 2000.

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: The Fight Over Voter ID Laws Heats Up in the Courts

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Texas and North Carolina both have cases that could bring the constitutionality of Voter ID laws back before the U.S. Supreme Court as soon as this term.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton intends to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the state’s voter ID law.

Meanwhile, according to Politifact, North Carolina attorney general and gubernatorial challenger Roy Cooper is actually saving taxpayers money by refusing to appeal the Fourth Circuit’s ruling on the state’s voter ID law, so Gov. Pat McCrory (R) should stop complaining about it.

And in other North Carolina news, Ian Millhiser writes that the state has hired high-powered conservative attorney Paul Clement to defend its indefensible voter ID law.

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Alex Thompson writes in Vice that the Zika virus is about to hit states with the most restrictive abortion laws in the United States, including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. So if you’re pregnant, stay away. No one has yet offered advice for those pregnant people who can’t leave Zika-prone areas.

Robin Marty writes on Care2 about Americans United for Life’s (AUL) latest Mad Lib-style model bill, the “National Abortion Data Reporting Law.” Attacking abortion rights: It’s what AUL does.

The Washington Post profiled Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Given this Congress, that will likely spur another round of hearings. (It did get a response from Richards herself.)

Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson writes in Bloomberg BNA that Stanford Law Professor Pamela Karlan thinks the Supreme Court’s clarification of the undue burden standard in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt will have ramifications for voting rights cases.

This must-read New York Times piece reminds us that we still have a long way to go in accommodating breastfeeding parents on the job.


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