Dirty Campaigning, Brazilian Style

Gillian Kane

The 2010 Brazilian presidential elections marked the first time abortion became a highly debated campaign issue and it followed a fairly American script, replete with allegations that the front runner, was a lesbian, a child-killer, a socialist.

“Murderer,” “anti-Christ,” “candidate of death.”  No, this isn’t Sharron Angle talking about Harry Reid in advance of tomorrow’s election.  This was the combative rhetoric framing the lead up to Sunday’s run-off election in Brazil.  The 2010 presidential elections marked the first time abortion became a highly debated campaign issue and it followed a fairly American script, replete with allegations against front runner, Dilma Rousseff, that she was a lesbian, a child-killer, a socialist.  The tactic didn’t pay off: Rousseff won a resounding victory last night with 56 percent of the vote to become Brazil’s first female president. 

It is remarkable that the Catholic Church and its right wing allies succeeded to the extent they did in making abortion a wedge issue because both presidential candidates, Rousseff and her opponent, José Serra, the former governor of Sao Paulo state, are hardly pro-choice—at at least in the way we Americans define pro-choice. Neither advocates for legalizing abortion, neither campaigned on a pro-choice platform, and neither has aligned with the activist Brazilian pro-choice movement.

Abortion is illegal in Brazil, though permissible for two exceptions; rape and risk to life of the pregnant woman.  The Brazilian feminist movement, active now for almost 30 years, has made significant progress in the face of unrelenting opposition to legal abortion reform.  Gains, however, are measured not in legislative change—there are few political champions within the National Congress—but rather in creating broad awareness about unsafe abortion as a public health issue, ensuring that legal abortions are available, developing a grassroots movement  to support legalizing abortion and preventing any regression on existing legislation.

The extraordinary visibility of abortion in this campaign season attests, in part, to the work of the anti-choice opposition.  But it also indicates the success of the women’s movement in making the right to control one’s reproductive decisions a political consideration.  Getting to this point has taken decades.  Unfortunately, the discussion about abortion as a public health concern and a woman’s right has been corrupted by an increasingly aggressive anti-choice movement that is using abortion to smear a candidate’s morality, integrity, and in Rousseff’s case, her femininity. 

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Rousseff is President Lula da Silva’s handpicked successor to represent the Workers Party. As such she will likely continue his progressive social and economic policies, many of which are objectionable to the Church and conservatives.  Like her mentor, she’s not what you’d call a radical on the issue of abortion.  But she has gone further than Lula, saying abortion is a public health concern that should be examined and decriminalized. These small statements are considered significant progress within the women’s movement.

Apparently the anti-choice movement seems to feel the same.  They publicized Rousseff’s mild remarks as examples of her extremist views. Their aggressive anti-abortion, anti-Rousseff campaign, mostly launched on the internet and through local parishes, forced her to retract these statements. In a desperate bid to court Catholics and evangelicals—a constituency both candidates were frantically vying for—she went so far as to sign a pledge stating that she is personally against abortion and promising not to change existing abortion laws if elected.

Serra is equally tepid on the issue of abortion though to his credit in 1988, when he was Minister of Health, it passed guidelines introducing the contraceptive pill to Brazil and legalizing abortion for the only two existing exceptions. Like Rousseff he has disavowed his past but because he has the full support of the Catholic Church, he has done a much better job of presenting himself as the “pro-life” candidate.

While abortion is absolutely a controversial issue, this particular controversy—that Rousseff is a rabid abortion supporter—is a red herring.  The myth of her wholesale support for abortion up to the ninth month has been entirely fabricated by the hierarchy of the Brazilian Catholic Church, with overt support from the Vatican. 

Just last week Pope Benedict XVI issued a public statement urging Brazil’s bishops to highlight the Church’s opposition to abortion and to encourage their congregations to vote for the candidate that respects life.  As a secular country founded on the principle of separation of church and state, the role of the Catholic Church in this election cycle, and the abuse of its role in particular, merits another article entirely. 

Given the similarity between the two candidates why abortion and why now? The answer is clear: The social stigma around abortion is such that the Catholic Church and its allies can gain political traction by merely leveling the accusation that a person is pro-choice. This negative branding has a long-lasting effect, even if the categorization is all wrong, as in the case of Rousseff.  Abortion is an easy way to destabilize candidates and distract voters from other pressing national matters. In a contested election with the potential to change parties, and where a woman as president is a strong likelihood, the Church is willing to use all the weapons in its arsenal to ensure a victory.

What calls the whole “debate” on abortion into question is that there really is no debate. Legalizing abortion in Brazil anytime soon is not a real possibility, not under Lula or Rousseff.  

So what lessons can we draw from this campaign?  The Church and its allies did shift the terms of the electoral debate and candidates were forced to placate religious voters by refashioning their position on abortion.  However, after last night’s historic win we have clear evidence that this strategy is weakening. Abortion can unbalance a candidate but it turns out voters in Brazil are not one-issue voters like Americans.  Let’s hope that US voters tomorrow will do as Brazilians did last night and ignore the vitriol of the campaign season and elect candidates who represent their best interests—and not those of the Catholic and evangelical churches.

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.

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”

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