Brazil: Abortion debate heats up in presidential runoff

As the 31st October date for the presidential runoff in Brazil approaches, the focus in the country is shifting to an ever-more contentious issue: abortion, bringing to light the murky blend of politics and religion.

Just days before last week's first round of voting, news spread of a 2007 interview with Workers’ Party (PT) candidate – and current frontrunner [pt] – Dilma Rousseff, in which she claimed to be in favour of legalising abortion as a matter of public health. This triggered a backlash from conservative religious groups, including the controversial posting on YouTube of a pro-life sermon given by a Brazilian pastor who, having shown graphic photos of aborted foetuses, called on his congregation to vote against the ruling PT's “anti-life” [pt] candidate.

Dilma's camp argued this backlash lost her crucial votes from the Brazilian Christian right that would have otherwise secured her the 50% needed for an outright majority. This portion instead went to Green Party candidate Marina Silva, a staunch anti-abortionist. Marcelo Déda, the PT's re-elected governor of Sergipe, said [pt],

A queda de Dilma e o crescimento de Marina no final se deveu ao recrudescimento do fundamentalismo religioso. É o efeito do púlpito nas igrejas.

The fall of Dilma and the surge of Marina at the end was due to the rise of religious fundamentalism. It is the effect of the churches’ pulpit.

Stalwart political blogger Altamiro Borges labelled this week's events as the “trap of the right” [pt]. Fellow blogger Rodrigo Vianna was also in agreement:

Com Serra estão a extrema-direita militar, as igrejas evangélicas mais conservadores, a Opus Dei, a TFP, a ala mais nefasta do novo catolicismo e os interesses econômicos de quem quer interromper a política de independência econômica e diplomática do Brasil.

Imaginem se Serra ganhar graças a essa onda. O que será o governo dele? Um vale-tudo em que a Globo, a Veja, os ruralistas, a direita católica, os mercadistas mais reacionários, os demo-tucanos derrotados nas urnas (e loucos para uma vingança contra “essa raça” de lulistas) vão dominar o Estado.

With Serra are the extreme right wing military, the most conservative evangelical churches, Opus Dei, a TFP [Brazilian Society for the Defence of Tradition, Family and Property], the most nefarious wing of new Catholicism, and the economic interests of  those who want to interrupt the policy of Brazil's economic and diplomatic independence.
Imagine if Serra wins thanks to this wave. What will his government be? A vale-tudo in which Globo [the principal TV network], Veja [a mainstream magazine], the ruralists [a bloc of Brazilian legislature known by their ties to agribusiness], right wing Catholic groups, the most reactionary enterprisers, and the Demo-PSDB coalition who have been defeated at the polls (and who are thirsty for revenge against “this breed” of Lulistas [a derogatory term for Lula supporters]) will dominate the country.

However, the debate soon turned petty. Amigos de Presidente Lula (Friends of President Lula) [pt], a pro-Dilma blog, was quick to call Serra a “liar” and also in favour of “legalising abortion”. During his time as Health Secretary in Fernando Henrique Cardoso's government in the late 1990s, Serra advocated for a debate in Congress over the issue, and regulated the guidelines for abortion in the case of sexual violence. Yet, throughout his presidential campaign, he declared himself to be anti-abortion.

At the Maria da Penha Nelas [pt] blog, which documents violence against women in Brazil, one contributor wrote,

Será que a nossa tutela (ou dominação) histórica não nos dá o direito de ser protagonistas num tema tão feminino como este?

Por que usar um tema tão complexo, e cheio de valores, morais, religiosos, éticos e de foro íntimo, para desmerecer um candiato a presidência da república?

Will it be that our historical safeguarding (or domination) does not give us the right to be protagonists in a subject so feminine as this?
Why use such a complex theme, and full of values, morals, religion, ethics, and of an intimate nature, to disregard a candidate for the presidency of the republic?

Dilma's views [pt], meanwhile, have been far from clear. She has openly changed her stance on abortion from against – calling it a “crime against women” – to in favour, as this clip [pt] shows.

Brazilian election frontrunner Dilma Rousseff. Photo by Roberto Stuckert Filho, from Rede Brasil Actual's Flickr photostream. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Bloggers are now concerned [pt] that the desire for political gain have overshadowed and trivialised a complex subject that warrants a deeper debate. Malusil, of blogging collective Trezentos [pt], lamented,

É uma pena que esse grave problema social, em vez de incentivar um verdadeiro debate, esteja sendo usado com máquina de guerra eleitoral.

It is a pity that this serious social problem, instead of encouraging a real debate, is being used as a machine of the election war.

Abortion remains illegal in Brazil unless in the case of rape or if the mother's health is at serious risk. Brazil's long-established women's movement has consistently lobbied for the decriminalisation of abortion, arguing it is fundamentally a woman's right to have control over her body. Meanwhile, there has been an ongoing discussion in Brazil's Congress on in fact tightening legislation on the procedure, rather than relaxing it.

While precise figures are impossible to gauge, Brazil's Health Ministry claims one million clandestine abortions a year are practiced in the country. Research [pt] by women's groups has also shown that, in the impoverished northeastern states of Bahía and Pernambuco, illegal terminations are the top cause of maternal death, illustrating Brazil's huge socio-economic divide between north and south. In an article re-posted on the political and current affairs blog Vi O Mundo [pt], Tulio Vianna [pt], a professor of Law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, argues,

A criminalização do aborto não evita o aborto, mas tão-somente obriga a mulher a realizá-lo na clandestinidade. As ricas pagando um alto preço pelo sigilo e segurança do procedimento e as pobres relegadas à própria sorte, em um oceano de desinformação e preconceito.
The criminalisation of abortion does not prevent abortion, but merely obliges a woman to have one underground. The rich pay a high price for the confidentiality and safety of the procedure, and the poor are left to their own devices, in an ocean of misinformation and prejudice.

However, opposition to decriminalisation from religious and conservative groups, which have substantial clout in the world's largest Roman Catholic nation, has been intense. Last year, Brazil was at the centre of a controversy in which doctors who had performed a termination on a 9-year-old girl who had been raped by her stepfather and carrying twins were excommunicated by the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Jose Cardoso. He claimed, “God's law is above any human law,” and upheld the crime of abortion was more grave than the girl's history of sexual abuse.

From this concoction of opposing opinions, the abortion debate fails to be pushed in a progressive direction, used instead as a tool for winning votes. Conceição Oliveria, of the popular blog Maria Fro, [pt], writes,

Eu confesso que não tenho mais paciência para discutir o que para mim é óbvio e que é tratado com tanto desdém pela sociedade que insiste em trazer dogmas religiosos para decidir questões do Estado laico. Os mesmos que pregam, por exemplo, a diminuição da maioridade penal ou que atacam programas sociais como o Bolsa-Família, são os mesmos que enchem a boca pra criminalizar as mulheres que tomam a difícil e dolorosa decisão de abortar.
I confess I don't have more patience to discuss what for me is obvious and which is treated with such disdain by the society that insists on bringing religious dogma to decide questions of the secular state. The same people who preach, for example, lowering the criminal age, or who attack social programmes such as the Bolsa-Família [a family welfare programme], are the same who cry out to criminalise women who take the difficult and painful decision to abort.
History will be the judge of how this debate pans out after the results of the second round on 31st October. Oliveira says,

Estamos vivendo tempos de grande confronto de idéias e projetos políticos, espero que a sociedade brasileira use de bom senso e que estabeleça os valores democráticos e o apreço à verdade como bandeira política.

We are living in times of a big confrontation of ideas and political projects, I hope that Brazilian society uses its good sense and that it establishes democratic values and appreciates truth as a political banner.

1 comment

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.