Abortion is tightly restricted in Brazil, allowed only in cases of rape, danger to the life of the woman, or fetal anencephaly—a condition in which the fetus’ brain and skull do not fully develop. Complications from clandestine abortions are most common among poor and vulnerable women, and may be killing as many as four Brazilians a day. A landmark case to decriminalize abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, currently before Brazil’s highest court, is a crucial step towards change.
On August 3 and 6, the Supreme Court of Brazil will hear arguments from 52 international experts, including Françoise Girard, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC). Girard was invited to speak by the court based on IWHC’s global expertise and her individual reputation as a respected advocate for sexual and reproductive health rights.
Around the world, the criminalization of abortion has disastrous consequences for women. Criminalization results in higher rates of maternal mortality and morbidity. An estimated 25 million unsafe abortions occur each year; in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws, only one in four procedures are considered safe, whereas in countries where abortion is generally allowed, nine out of 10 procedures are safe. “In 2012 alone, an estimated 7 million women received treatment for complications due to unsafe abortions in developing countries,” notes Girard. “That is a staggering number of completely avoidable injuries and hospitalizations.”
Globally, the evidence is clear that criminalization of abortion does not reduce abortions, but only makes them less safe. Conversely, data shows that, over time, the decriminalization of abortion leads to fewer abortions due to improved sexuality education, decreased stigma about the procedure, and increased access to sexual and reproductive health services more broadly—Romania, Portugal, and France provide examples of this. Girard emphasizes that “worldwide, the countries with the more liberal abortion laws have the lowest rates of abortion.” Her testimony offers global perspectives in support of legal, safe abortion services and provides the court with the facts needed to effectively consider the case.
The case, ADPF n. 442 (or Arguição de Descumprimento de Preceito Fundamental n. 442 in Portuguese) builds on the tireless work of women’s advocacy groups throughout the country and provides a pivotal opportunity to advance reproductive rights in Brazil. The lawsuit argues that the 1940 Penal Code articles that prohibit abortion are in conflict with the 1988 Brazilian constitution.
Girard’s invitation follows IWHC’s amicus brief, which supported the lawsuit and demonstrated that abortion restrictions do not reduce the number of abortions, but instead, discriminate against and endanger women. The ADPF case was filed on March 8, 2017 (International Women’s Day) by the Socialism and Freedom Party, together with the Anis-Institute of Bioethics, Human Rights and Gender, a long-time IWHC partner.
Globally, reproductive rights are expanding; 27 countries liberalized their abortion laws between 2000 and 2017. In 2018, Ireland and Argentina have made substantial strides toward increased access to abortion. Today, in Brazil, women can be imprisoned three years for having an abortion, and those who perform or assist in a procedure, such as medical providers, can be jailed for up to four years.
Brazil recognizes health as a constitutional right, but the criminalization of abortion keeps this right out of reach for millions of women. As the lawsuit and Girard’s testimony state, decriminalizing abortion can finally give women access to the rights, services, information, and dignity to which they are entitled.
Photo: Mídia Ninja