Crime and Punishment: Illegal Abortion in Brazil

Amber Levinson

An estimated one million illegal abortions occur in Brazil each year, yet very few women have ever been imprisoned on for seeking abortion care. That may be about to change. In April, officials took a brisk departure from the nation's relative "tolerance" of illegal abortion practice, arresting the head of a two decade-old family planning clinic for providing abortions and seizing the medical records of nearly 10,000 women.

An
estimated one million illegal abortions occur in Brazil each year, yet very few
women have ever been imprisoned for seeking abortion care. That may be about to change.

In
April of this year, officials in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul took
a brisk departure from the nation’s relative "tolerance" of illegal
abortion practice, arresting the head of a two decade-old family planning
clinic for providing abortions and seizing the medical records of nearly 10,000
women.

As
a result of the crackdown, the medical histories of 9,862
women were made public and the debate around decriminalization of abortions was
re-ignited. Of the women whose records were seized, about a thousand are
under suspicion of criminal abortions and 36 have been sentenced to date in an
ongoing trial. Women convicted thus far have been offered alternative
sentences of community service in local daycares at the discretion of judges,
who are empowered to assign one to three years’ prison sentence.

In
Brazil,
abortion is a crime except in cases of rape or proven threat to the mother’s
life.

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Nationwide
Repercussions

Although
unsafe abortion leads to 250,000 hospitalizations in Brazil each
year and is the third-leading cause of maternal death, the overall tolerance of
illegal abortion had let the issue lapse somewhat in the public conscious. The
recent events in Mato Grosso do Sul have brought it back to the forefront. The
case is unprecedented in scale and in the violation of privacy laws that
occurred, wherein private medical records were exposed to public perusal for
weeks. Moreover, it is the first
instance of direct, retroactive and en masse targeting of patients.

"In
the past, they closed clinics and apprehended equipment. Now, in order to indict women and produce
evidence against doctors, the police are handling medical records which by law
should only be interpreted by a mediating physician," says lawyer and
reproductive rights specialist Carmen Hein de Campos. "A very dangerous precedent has been set."

Beatriz
Galli, of Ipas Brasil, warns, "This case is an alarm signal. It shows that there is a strategy of mass
persecution and indictment of women… in order to demonstrate that the law has
not fallen into disuse, that it is being enforced."

"In
cases where proof exists that these women practiced abortion, it is not up to
me to choose not to indict them," Paulo César dos Passos, chief prosecutor in
the Mato Grosso do Sul case explained to Agência
Brasil
. "The Penal Code clearly establishes that the practice of abortion
is a crime […] and I cannot avoid carrying out the law. It is not about a personal position." In
response to protests, he argued that law enforcement cannot be held responsible
for "an issue that must be confronted by public policy and by congress, stating
whether abortion should continue to be a crime or not."

Legalization Defeated
in Congress

In
light of the events in Mato Grosso do Sul, a special hearing of the Brazilian
House of Representatives was called on June 18th. In the hearing, Nilcéia Freire, Minister of
the Special Secretariat for Women’s Policies, spoke in favor of legalizing
abortion via a bill that would soon be voted on in congress. In other nations where abortion has been
legalized, she argued, the death rate from unsafe abortions is close to nil,
and the number of overall abortions has not increased.

"And
the responsibility of the 9,862 men presumably associated with these
pregnancies?" Minister Freire wrote in leading paper O Globo. "Might that be remembered and pursued legally at some
point?"

Soon
thereafter the bill that would have legalized abortion, after languishing in
congress for sixteen years, was voted on and defeated. Reproductive rights activists had attempted
to remove the bill from the agenda due to its slim chances of passing, but to
no avail. According to Campos, "It is
virtually impossible to decriminalize abortion with the current legislative
makeup. We first need to win over public
opinion."

Roughly
one-third of the Brazilian congress belongs to the "Parliamentary Front for
Families and In Support of Life." Many are closely tied
to religious interests. Congressman
Henrique Afonso openly opines, "The legalization of abortion is in the interest
of those who defend population control, those who are concerned with building a
‘superior race’ and those who sell the tissue of aborted fetuses." Another
congressman, José Bassuma, argues that to legalize abortion is
unconstitutional, violating the citizen’s right to life. Both are members of President Lula’s Workers’
Party, considered one of the more left-leaning in Brazil.

"How
in Brazil, with so much forward progress in alternative energy, social policy,
the economy… can we still be so behind on this issue?," says Galli.

The
Mato Grosso do Sul case does seem to be part of or inspiration for a broader
strategy. Since April, two more clinics
in different states have been shut down, each with the new practice of seizing
patient records.

Looking Ahead

Abortion
is no exception to the Brazilian status quo: it discriminates sharply along
class lines. Women able to pay cash for
abortion – which costs anywhere from two to ten times the monthly minimum wage
– have relatively easy access to clandestine but safe abortion care provided by
qualified doctors. But as the majority
of Brazilians are poor, most women resort to self-induced or otherwise unsafe
abortions, often via medication.

"The
current laws are unjust. They discriminate against the most vulnerable women:
those without money, or education… they are the ones who run the risk of
death," Galli argues. "In addition to
the legalization of abortion, we need to make health services available for all."

The
presidency and cabinet are more openly supportive of legalizing abortion than
the overall population of this, the world’s largest Catholic country. Research
indicates that 65 per cent of Brazilians believe abortion should remain
illegal, and the current congress has repeatedly voted against acts to legalize
or liberalize access.

Last
year, the Ministry of Health set forth its position in favor of making abortion
a public health issue, rather than a criminal one. It also launched a
widespread birth control subsidy program and educational campaign (both
coincidentally on the eve of the Pope’s visit last year). Since then, however, the president and
ministers have stopped speaking out on the topic, presumably due to strong
dissent from religious groups and their affiliates in the legislature.

The
recent clampdowns and their repercussions have forced a largely anti-abortion
public to reflect upon whether criminal sentences are the best solution, and
whether women alone should be left to answer for an unwanted pregnancy.

"[The
recent cases] have had some positive outcome, in the sense that they have given
us more solid and concrete arguments," says Galli. "They show that a law from the 1940s does not
deal with the current reality. It
produced a reaction that [the authorities] didn’t want – people began talking
about human rights, about discrimination against women."

"The
decriminalization of abortion has always been a difficult challenge in Brazil," said Campos.
"It feels as though everything is still inside a pressure cooker."

"On the other
hand," she added, "abortion has never been discussed so much."

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News Politics

Debbie Wasserman Schultz Resigns as Chair of DNC, Will Not Gavel in Convention

Ally Boguhn

Donna Brazile, vice chair of the DNC, will step in as interim replacement for Wasserman Schultz as committee chair.

On the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) resigned her position as chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), effective after the convention, amid controversy over leaked internal party emails and months of criticism over her handling of the Democratic primary races.

Wasserman Schultz told the Sun Sentinel on Monday that she would not gavel in this week’s convention, according to Politico.

“I know that electing Hillary Clinton as our next president is critical for America’s future,” Wasserman Schultz said in a Sunday statement announcing her decision. “Going forward, the best way for me to accomplish those goals is to step down as Party Chair at the end of this convention.”

“We have planned a great and unified Convention this week and I hope and expect that the DNC team that has worked so hard to get us to this point will have the strong support of all Democrats in making sure this is the best convention we have ever had,” Wasserman Schultz continued.

Just prior to news that Wasserman Schultz would step down, it was announced that Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) would chair the DNC convention.

Donna Brazile, vice chair of the DNC, will step in as interim replacement for Wasserman Schultz as committee chair.

Wasserman Schultz’s resignation comes after WikiLeaks released more than 19,000 internal emails from the DNC, breathing new life into arguments that the Democratic Party—and Wasserman Schultz in particular—had “rigged” the primary in favor of nominating Hillary Clinton. As Vox‘s Timothy B. Lee pointed out, there seems to be “no bombshells” in the released emails, though one email does show that Brad Marshall, chief financial officer of the DNC, emailed asking whether an unnamed person could be questioned about “his” religious beliefs. Many believe the email was referencing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT).

Another email from Wasserman Schultz revealed the DNC chair had referred to Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, as a “damn liar.”

As previously reported by Rewire before the emails’ release, “Wasserman Schultz has been at the center of a string of heated criticisms directed at her handling of the DNC as well as allegations that she initially limited the number of the party’s primary debates, steadfastly refusing to add more until she came under pressure.” She also sparked controversy in January after suggesting that young women aren’t supporting Clinton because there is “a complacency among the generation” who were born after Roe v. Wade was decided.

“Debbie Wasserman Schultz has made the right decision for the future of the Democratic Party,” said Sanders in a Sunday statement. “While she deserves thanks for her years of service, the party now needs new leadership that will open the doors of the party and welcome in working people and young people. The party leadership must also always remain impartial in the presidential nominating process, something which did not occur in the 2016 race.”

Sanders had previously demanded Wasserman Schultz’s resignation in light of the leaked emails during an appearance earlier that day on ABC’s This Week.

Clinton nevertheless stood by Wasserman Schultz in a Sunday statement responding to news of the resignation. “I am grateful to Debbie for getting the Democratic Party to this year’s historic convention in Philadelphia, and I know that this week’s events will be a success thanks to her hard work and leadership,” said Clinton. “There’s simply no one better at taking the fight to the Republicans than Debbie—which is why I am glad that she has agreed to serve as honorary chair of my campaign’s 50-state program to gain ground and elect Democrats in every part of the country, and will continue to serve as a surrogate for my campaign nationally, in Florida, and in other key states.”

Clinton added that she still looks “forward to campaigning with Debbie in Florida and helping her in her re-election bid.” Wasserman Schultz faces a primary challenger, Tim Canova, for her congressional seat in Florida’s 23rd district for the first time this year.

Analysis Politics

The 2016 Republican Platform Is Riddled With Conservative Abortion Myths

Ally Boguhn

Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the Republican platform, which relies on a series of falsehoods about reproductive health care.

Republicans voted to ratify their 2016 platform this week, codifying what many deem one of the most extreme platforms ever accepted by the party.

“Platforms are traditionally written by and for the party faithful and largely ignored by everyone else,” wrote the New York Times‘ editorial board Monday. “But this year, the Republicans are putting out an agenda that demands notice.”

“It is as though, rather than trying to reconcile Mr. Trump’s heretical views with conservative orthodoxy, the writers of the platform simply opted to go with the most extreme version of every position,” it continued. “Tailored to Mr. Trump’s impulsive bluster, this document lays bare just how much the G.O.P. is driven by a regressive, extremist inner core.”

Tucked away in the 66-page document accepted by Republicans as their official guide to “the Party’s principles and policies” are countless resolutions that seem to back up the Times‘ assertion that the platform is “the most extreme” ever put forth by the party, including: rolling back marriage equalitydeclaring pornography a “public health crisis”; and codifying the Hyde Amendment to permanently block federal funding for abortion.

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Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the platform, which the Susan B. Anthony List deemed the “Most Pro-life Platform Ever” in a press release upon the GOP’s Monday vote at the convention. “The Republican platform has always been strong when it comes to protecting unborn children, their mothers, and the conscience rights of pro-life Americans,” said the organization’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, in a statement. “The platform ratified today takes that stand from good to great.”  

Operation Rescue, an organization known for its radical tactics and links to violence, similarly declared the platform a “victory,” noting its inclusion of so-called personhood language, which could ban abortion and many forms of contraception. “We are celebrating today on the streets of Cleveland. We got everything we have asked for in the party platform,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, in a statement posted to the group’s website.

But what stands out most in the Republicans’ document is the series of falsehoods and myths relied upon to push their conservative agenda. Here are just a few of the most egregious pieces of misinformation about abortion to be found within the pages of the 2016 platform:

Myth #1: Planned Parenthood Profits From Fetal Tissue Donations

Featured in multiple sections of the Republican platform is the tired and repeatedly debunked claim that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue donations. In the subsection on “protecting human life,” the platform says:

We oppose the use of public funds to perform or promote abortion or to fund organizations, like Planned Parenthood, so long as they provide or refer for elective abortions or sell fetal body parts rather than provide healthcare. We urge all states and Congress to make it a crime to acquire, transfer, or sell fetal tissues from elective abortions for research, and we call on Congress to enact a ban on any sale of fetal body parts. In the meantime, we call on Congress to ban the practice of misleading women on so-called fetal harvesting consent forms, a fact revealed by a 2015 investigation. We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage.

Later in the document, under a section titled “Preserving Medicare and Medicaid,” the platform again asserts that abortion providers are selling “the body parts of aborted children”—presumably again referring to the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood:

We respect the states’ authority and flexibility to exclude abortion providers from federal programs such as Medicaid and other healthcare and family planning programs so long as they continue to perform or refer for elective abortions or sell the body parts of aborted children.

The platform appears to reference the widely discredited videos produced by anti-choice organization Center for Medical Progress (CMP) as part of its smear campaign against Planned Parenthood. The videos were deceptively edited, as Rewire has extensively reported. CMP’s leader David Daleiden is currently under federal indictment for tampering with government documents in connection with obtaining the footage. Republicans have nonetheless steadfastly clung to the group’s claims in an effort to block access to reproductive health care.

Since CMP began releasing its videos last year, 13 state and three congressional inquiries into allegations based on the videos have turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of Planned Parenthood.

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund—which has endorsed Hillary Clinton—called the Republicans’ inclusion of CMP’s allegation in their platform “despicable” in a statement to the Huffington Post. “This isn’t just an attack on Planned Parenthood health centers,” said Laguens. “It’s an attack on the millions of patients who rely on Planned Parenthood each year for basic health care. It’s an attack on the brave doctors and nurses who have been facing down violent rhetoric and threats just to provide people with cancer screenings, birth control, and well-woman exams.”

Myth #2: The Supreme Court Struck Down “Commonsense” Laws About “Basic Health and Safety” in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

In the section focusing on the party’s opposition to abortion, the GOP’s platform also reaffirms their commitment to targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws. According to the platform:

We salute the many states that now protect women and girls through laws requiring informed consent, parental consent, waiting periods, and clinic regulation. We condemn the Supreme Court’s activist decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt striking down commonsense Texas laws providing for basic health and safety standards in abortion clinics.

The idea that TRAP laws, such as those struck down by the recent Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health, are solely for protecting women and keeping them safe is just as common among conservatives as it is false. However, as Rewire explained when Paul Ryan agreed with a nearly identical claim last week about Texas’ clinic regulations, “the provisions of the law in question were not about keeping anybody safe”:

As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the opinion declaring them unconstitutional, “When directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.”

All the provisions actually did, according to Breyer on behalf of the Court majority, was put “a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion,” and “constitute an undue burden on abortion access.”

Myth #3: 20-Week Abortion Bans Are Justified By “Current Medical Research” Suggesting That Is When a Fetus Can Feel Pain

The platform went on to point to Republicans’ Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a piece of anti-choice legislation already passed in several states that, if approved in Congress, would create a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks based on junk science claiming fetuses can feel pain at that point in pregnancy:

Over a dozen states have passed Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Acts prohibiting abortion after twenty weeks, the point at which current medical research shows that unborn babies can feel excruciating pain during abortions, and we call on Congress to enact the federal version.

Major medical groups and experts, however, agree that a fetus has not developed to the point where it can feel pain until the third trimester. According to a 2013 letter from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “A rigorous 2005 scientific review of evidence published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. A 2010 review of the scientific evidence on the issue conducted by the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists similarly found “that the fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior” to 24 weeks’ gestation.

Doctors who testify otherwise often have a history of anti-choice activism. For example, a letter read aloud during a debate over West Virginia’s ultimately failed 20-week abortion ban was drafted by Dr. Byron Calhoun, who was caught lying about the number of abortion-related complications he saw in Charleston.

Myth #4: Abortion “Endangers the Health and Well-being of Women”

In an apparent effort to criticize the Affordable Care Act for promoting “the notion of abortion as healthcare,” the platform baselessly claimed that abortion “endangers the health and well-being” of those who receive care:

Through Obamacare, the current Administration has promoted the notion of abortion as healthcare. We, however, affirm the dignity of women by protecting the sanctity of human life. Numerous studies have shown that abortion endangers the health and well-being of women, and we stand firmly against it.

Scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that abortion is safe. Research shows that a first-trimester abortion carries less than 0.05 percent risk of major complications, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and “pose[s] virtually no long-term risk of problems such as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or birth defect, and little or no risk of preterm or low-birth-weight deliveries.”

There is similarly no evidence to back up the GOP’s claim that abortion endangers the well-being of women. A 2008 study from the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion, an expansive analysis on current research regarding the issue, found that while those who have an abortion may experience a variety of feelings, “no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors.”

As is the case for many of the anti-abortion myths perpetuated within the platform, many of the so-called experts who claim there is a link between abortion and mental illness are discredited anti-choice activists.

Myth #5: Mifepristone, a Drug Used for Medical Abortions, Is “Dangerous”

Both anti-choice activists and conservative Republicans have been vocal opponents of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA’s) March update to the regulations for mifepristone, a drug also known as Mifeprex and RU-486 that is used in medication abortions. However, in this year’s platform, the GOP goes a step further to claim that both the drug and its general approval by the FDA are “dangerous”:

We believe the FDA’s approval of Mifeprex, a dangerous abortifacient formerly known as RU-486, threatens women’s health, as does the agency’s endorsement of over-the-counter sales of powerful contraceptives without a physician’s recommendation. We support cutting federal and state funding for entities that endanger women’s health by performing abortions in a manner inconsistent with federal or state law.

Studies, however, have overwhelmingly found mifepristone to be safe. In fact, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals says mifepristone “is safer than acetaminophen,” aspirin, and Viagra. When the FDA conducted a 2011 post-market study of those who have used the drug since it was approved by the agency, they found that more than 1.5 million women in the U.S. had used it to end a pregnancy, only 2,200 of whom had experienced an “adverse event” after.

The platform also appears to reference the FDA’s approval of making emergency contraception such as Plan B available over the counter, claiming that it too is a threat to women’s health. However, studies show that emergency contraception is safe and effective at preventing pregnancy. According to the World Health Organization, side effects are “uncommon and generally mild.”