BY Sinara Gumieri
The proposed constitutional amendment PEC 181/2015, nicknamed “Trojan Horse”, is the latest in a series of attempts to restrict abortion rights in Brazil led by the christian fundamentalist-dominated Lower House. The proposed bill’s original text aimed at extending maternity leave for mothers of premature babies, but “right to life from conception” language was quickly inserted in the text. The bill doesn’t directly address abortion, but restricting legal abortions is the sole purpose of the language included. On November 8th, 18 male representatives voted for the amendment – the only woman in the room voted against it. The special commission session ended with male MPs chanting “life yes, abortion no”. The so called “bible caucus” threatens to strip Brazilian women and girls away from their basic rights to be free from reproductive coercion – abortion is only legal in the country in cases of rape, risk to the woman’s life and fetal anencephaly. The bill, PEC 181/2015, needs two-thirds of the votes in both chambers of Congress to pass.
The “bible caucus’s” legal strategy is allegedly inspired by the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights, in which article 4 states that “Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception”. The expression “in general” is a caveat to remember exceptions to the purpose of protecting life “from conception”, but it is conveniently absent from the Brazilian bill text. It is worth remembering the 2012 Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ruling on the case Artavia Murillo et al v. Costa Rica. Costa Rica had banned the assisted reproductive technique of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) under the claim that potential IVF related embryo destruction violated the right to life “from conception”. IACHR decided instead that the ban violated rights to privacy, liberty, personal integrity and sexual health, the right to form a family, the right to be free from discrimination, and the right to have access to technological progress. In doing so, the Court stated that there is no absolute protection of life in gestation.
Back to Brazil, while the PEC 181/2015 was being met with street protests, a new petition was filed by the political party PSOL with support from Anis – Institute of Bioethics on the Supreme Court case demanding the decriminalization of abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. The petition reminded the Court that, since the case was first filed, in March 2017, 330 000 Brazilian women have had to seek illegal unsafe abortions in the country. The petition once again asked Justices to allow women to have abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and to suspend abortion-related criminal cases. In doing so, it introduced the story of Rebeca Mendes, a 30-year-old woman from São Paulo, mother of two boys, family breadwinner, who was six weeks pregnant and facing intense mental distress due to an unwanted pregnancy, which happened while she was switching birth control methods.
Feminist organizations Anis – Institute of Bioethics and Think Olga are doing a social media campaign in support of Rebeca. Rebeca wrote a letter to the Supreme Court which reads: “(…) I have a full scholarship and this is my family’s passport to a better life. To continue with this pregnancy also means to interrupt this dream for an indeterminate period of time. I am not an irresponsible woman, I was switching contraceptives. Since I don’t have insurance, the whole process is through SUS (Brazilian public health system), where every step is slow. I live in Sao Paulo city and to be honest I could have gone to a street near by with R$ 700,00 (US$216) and bought illegal pills, have returned home and ended with all this. (…) The fear of the procedure failing and leading to malformations, or of a medication induced hemorrhage causing my death, or be taken to the hospital and from there to the police station… I don’t want to go to jail, much less die. It doesn’t seem fair to me. I am not 4 or 5 months pregnant, I am only days pregnant.” Her full letter can be found here.
Within days, the Supreme Court rejected Rebeca’s urgent request claiming they could not analyse her case but will eventually consider the larger decriminalization of abortion argument. Since then, Rebeca presented another legal request to the local justice system. After over a week with no response, she was invited by the Latin American Consortium against Unsafe Abortion to speak at an event in Bogotá and share her story. While there, Rebeca was finally able to have a safe abortion, after a private clinic offered to perform it with no cost. Following a 2006 Supreme Court decision, abortion is legal in Colombia to preserve a woman’s physical and mental health, in case of life-threatening foetal malformations and if the pregnancy is the result of rape, non-consensual artificial insemination or incest. Rebeca is relieved she was able to get the care she needed, but ashamed her own country didn’t provide it. She hopes her story will bring light to the struggle for abortion rights in Brazil.