Brazilian Law Seeks to Establish “Extensive Rights” For Fertilized Eggs, Including “Child Support”

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Brazilian Law Seeks to Establish “Extensive Rights” For Fertilized Eggs, Including “Child Support”

Jodi Jacobson

A measure under consideration in Brazil would give the rights of fertilized ovum "absolute priority" over women's rights under Brazilian law and would include "child support." Human Rights Watch has called on Brazil's Congress to protect women's dignity and human rights by rejecting the legislation.

Human rights organizations are calling on Brazil’s Congress to reject a bill that, if passed into law, would confer extensive rights to fertilized ova. The measure would give the rights of the fertilized ovum “absolute priority” under Brazilian law. In other words, absolute priority over women lives, health, and rights to be protected as living, breathing human beings.

The proposed bill, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “would require any act or omission that could in any way have a negative impact on a fertilized ovum to be considered illegal.” The bill was voted favorably out of the Family and Social Security Commission of the Brazilian House of Representatives this month.

Over the past year, a number of jurisdictions in Latin America have passed laws to confer some rights on fertilized ova, notes HRW.  For example, in Mexico, a number of federal states have recently amended their constitutions to extend the protection of the right to life to “the conceived.”  Many of these laws specifically protect earlier legal exceptions for abortion in cases of rape, incest, or where the life or health of the pregnant woman is threatened. 

Brazil’s bill however goes further.  According to HRW, it extends the right to child support to ova that have been fertilized through rape, and seeks to give “absolute priority” to the rights of the fertilized ovum. Child support to fertilized eggs is an interesting idea given it is virtually impossible to confirm fertilization and that a fertilized egg is not the same as a pregnancy. Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of State, millions of born, living children in Brazil suffer from poverty, lack adequate nutrition and schooling, and must work to survive. One could be forgiven for presuming that the definition and issue of “child support” is somewhat misplaced.

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Passage of the bill under consideration, according to Human Rights Watch, “could lead to the criminalization of any act or omission thought to affect the fertilized ovum negatively, trumping the rights to life or health of any pregnant woman.”

This is an election year in Brazil, and the increasingly conservative Catholic Church is deeply involved in politics in the country. The disregard of the Church for women’s lives could not have been more apparent than in the case last year of a nine-year-old child who became pregnant with twins due to repeated rape by her stepfather. Brazilian law allows abortion if there is a risk to the life of the mother or in cases of rape.  Her doctors said the girl met both those conditions, underscoring her pelvis and body were so small her uterus was not big enough to carry one baby, never mind two.

Still, led by the Church, anti-choice extremists in the country argued that the girl could have safely had a Caesarean section. In the end the girl was provided an abortion by her physicians, and the local archbishop, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, declared her mother and her medical team to be excommunicated.

The rapist was not excommunicated.

This new law also comes after a period of review and proposed changes in social and economic policies in Brazil, some with the goal, for example, of improving the health of women and children, improving maternal and child health, and generally expanding the health system. These changes have been supported by human rights, public health and women’s rights organizations.

“To promote healthy pregnancies and births is a laudable goal and, indeed, one of Brazil’s human rights obligations,” said Marianne Mollmann, women’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “But this bill is likely to cause more harm than good by deterring pregnant women from seeking the care they may need because they are afraid to be turned over  to the police.”

While the law proposing to equate fertilized eggs with persons, the social and economic status of women and children in Brazil languishes. A 2005 report by the U.S. Department of State, for example, indicates that gender discrimination, compounded by racial discrimination, keeps millions of women locked in poverty. Women generally still earn 30 percent less than men and in households headed by single woman, the woman worker generally earns less than half the minimum wage. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), white Brazilian women earn on average 40 percent less than white men, and Afro-Brazilian women received 60 percent less earnings than white men.

A 2010 report by the State Department notes that in Brazil:

Rape, including spousal rape, is a crime punishable by eight to 10 years’ imprisonment; however, men who killed, sexually assaulted, or committed other crimes against women were unlikely to be brought to trial. Nationwide annual hotline data included 390 sexual-violence incidents within the total complaints of violence. From January to August, the Sao Paulo State Secretariat for Public Safety registered 1,998 rape cases, compared with 2,562 during the same period in 2008. There was no information available on the numbers of prosecutions or convictions for rape.

According to a nationwide Avon Institute/Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics poll cited by the State Department and conducted in February, 62 percent of women and 48 percent of men knew a woman who suffered from domestic violence. Of those interviewed, 24 percent said that women continue to stay with an abusive partner for economic reasons; 23 percent, for the well-being of children; and 17 percent, because of fear for their lives. Fifty-six percent of those polled lacked confidence that the police or judicial system could protect an abused woman.

Another survey cited by State revealed that 23 percent of women in Brazil were subjected to domestic violence, and that in about 70 percent of the occurrences, the aggressor was the victim’s husband or companion. Forty percent of the cases resulted in serious injuries, but in only 2 percent of the complaints was the aggressor actually punished.

And according to another Human Rights Watch evaluation, discrimination against women starts early in life: Girls often lack basic medical care and have fewer opportunities than boys to receive exercise, recreation, and participate in other activities.

The State Department notes that Brazilian law:

“prohibits subjecting any child or adolescent to any form of negligence, discrimination, exploitation, violence, cruelty, or oppression. Yet, allegations of abuse of minors and prosecution of crimes against children were not pursued adequately or aggressively.”

Given these and other disparities, those concerned with the basic human rights–and fundamental humanity–of women suggest Brazilian lawmakers and the Church in Brazil supporting this law might reexamine their own priorities.

“The Brazilian government would do well to focus its attention on providing assistance to rape victims, adolescent mothers, and others who are vulnerable and potentially unable to provide for themselves,”  Mollmann said. “This law does the absolute opposite by threatening to subject everything women do or do not do during a pregnancy to criminal investigation.”