Ipas’s Bia Galli attended Brazil’s historic Supreme Court hearing on abortion
In an historic two-day hearing before Brazil’s Supreme Court last week, experts presented arguments and evidence regarding the question of whether abortion should be made legal up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Currently abortion is a crime in Brazil—except after rape, if a woman’s life is in danger, or if the fetus has a fatal brain condition called anencephaly. As a result, thousands of women and girls each year resort to clandestine, often unsafe abortions that risk their health and lives.
Bia Galli, Ipas’s senior policy and advocacy consultant based in Brazil, attended the two-day hearing. Here she talks about its historic significance, the rise of the conservative opposition movement in Brazil, and what’s next for abortion rights advocates.
Question: What was the goal of this hearing?
Answer: In 2017, a case was filed before the Supreme Court that calls for abortion to be legal under all circumstances in the first 12 weeks or pregnancy on the basis that Brazil’s penal code that criminalizes abortion is unconstitutional. Brazil’s Supreme Court uses public hearings on particular topics to allow justices to hear from a variety of experts and thereby inform their eventual decisionmaking. This is why Supreme Court Justice Rosa Weber—who will be the lead justice presiding over the upcoming case regarding abortion—called for the hearing. It provided a unique opportunity for all the justices to hear legal arguments and evidence presented by experts in public health, human rights, constitutional rights, social sciences and religion on the topic of abortion in Brazil.
Q: Do you see parallels between Brazil and the United States in terms of a surging conservative movement to restrict abortion?
A: Yes, both countries are facing a political backlash to abortion rights due to very organized opposition strategies at the legislative level to increase barriers to women’s access to safe abortion. In both cases, the opposition bases their strategy on religion and traditional family values. The only difference is that in the United States, there is a Supreme Court decision guaranteeing abortion rights, and in Brazil the law criminalizes abortion.
In Brazil today, the courts are the most neutral government space in which sexual and reproductive rights can be openly discussed. Congress is now dominated by conservatives who align themselves with religious groups, as well as with the Parliamentarian Caucus in Defense of Life and the Family, which opposes legal abortion. There are now more than 60 bills pending in Congress presented by conservatives to limit women’s sexual and reproductive rights, including some to ban abortion in all circumstances and criminalize women and health providers who have or provide abortions—and there is just one bill proposed to liberalize the current abortion law.
Q: What did Ipas contribute to the hearing?
A: Ipas nominated Anand Grover, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health, to testify on our behalf at the hearing. Grover wrote a key report in 2011 on how criminal laws on sexuality and reproduction violate women’s and girls’ right to health—and the report called on states to immediately decriminalize abortion. At the hearing, Grover presented a comprehensive overview of how criminalizing abortion denies women’s human rights and the various court rulings and international treaties that call for states to protect women’s rights with access to legal abortion. He ended by pointing out that Brazil’s criminal abortion law is unconstitutional in that it violates the rights enshrined in Brazil’s own constitution.
Q: What other significant testimony was presented during the two-day hearing?
A: This was the first time the Supreme Court listened to an array of diverse arguments about abortion, including testimony that reviewed previous court rulings on abortion in Brazil and in other countries like Colombia, Mexico, the United States and Canada. There was also data shared on how liberalizing abortion laws and making abortion safe and available have contributed to declines in maternal mortality and increased access to contraception and reproductive health information in countries such as Portugal and Uruguay.
Presenters also shared national statistics on the problem of unsafe abortion, and there were personal stories from people who chose to have abortions. Lawyers and members of Brazil’s public defender offices from various states presented data on women who have faced criminal charges for abortion. They argued that enforcement of Brazil’s criminal abortion law constitutes institutional racism against black women, since they are two-and-a-half times more likely to die from unsafe abortion and they face greater risk of arrest and prosecution when they seek care for unsafe abortion complications. A woman who’s an evangelical pastor also testified about how evangelical doctrine on abortion has changed over time and how the Bible doesn’t prohibit or condemn abortion, despite what lawmakers associated with Brazilian evangelical groups are currently claiming.
International experts also testified, such as abortion rights scholar Rebecca Cook on behalf of the Latin American Consortium Against Unsafe Abortion (known as CLACAI), Francoise Girard with International Women’s Health Coalition, Veronica Undurraga from Chile on behalf of Human Rights Watch, and Sebastian Rodriguez from the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Q: What types of individual stories were shared?
A: Many presenters mentioned the preventable death of Ingriane Barbosa Carvalho, who died at age 31 due to infection from an unsafe abortion, as a case emblematic of the dangerous conditions Brazilian women who are poor and black women face when trying to end an unwanted pregnancy. Ingriane, a mother of three, sought an abortion from an untrained, clandestine provider who inserted a castor bean into her uterus to end her pregnancy at approximately four months gestation. She developed an infection, was hospitalized for seven days and underwent a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) to control the infection, but in the end, she died. The NY Times tells her story in a piece they wrote about the Supreme Court hearing.
Q: What impact do you think this hearing will have in the future? Are advocates planning their next steps toward law change?
A: The next steps are unclear. At the end of the hearing, Justice Weber said that it had been a unique personal experience for her in which she learned a lot, and now is time for reflection on all that was presented. Advocates for abortion rights will continue to closely monitor Congress and bills introduced to ban abortion, and we’ll also work to keep up a lively public debate on the topic. We were happy to see balanced media coverage on the topic during the hearing—and some coverage that favored making abortion legal.
Q: With Brazil’s presidential election coming up later this year, will the topic of abortion be a factor?
A: Yes, abortion is always a hot topic. And now it will be even more prominent due to the growth of a new-wave and very visible young feminist movement advocating for abortion rights alongside other voices in the region, such as the movements for legal abortion in Argentina and Chile that politicians have been unable to ignore or silence. We are well positioned now to respond to the opposition and to bring strong arguments to this debate.
Learn more: Bia Galli is co-author of a forthcoming article in the International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, a preview of which is now available. The article describes a human-rights-based framework for emergency obstetric care used in the review of a Brazilian woman’s tragic and preventable death due to poor-quality care she received during pregnancy.
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