Abortion rights in Brazil: A big step forward

By Bia Galli, Ipas senior policy advisor

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Bia GalliBia Galli, Ipas senior policy advisor

Recent developments for women’s reproductive rights—amid current political turmoil in Brazil—are cause for celebration.

Brazil’s Supreme Court ruling on Nov. 29 established that abortion is not a crime during the first trimester of pregnancy and that criminal abortion laws violate women’s fundamental rights. Although this ruling just applies to the case in discussion and doesn’t actually legalize abortion, it sets a landmark precedent for future abortion rights cases and reaffirms two other recent rulings that build support for abortion rights.

In fact, the Supreme Court will soon decide a case centered on whether the state has an obligation to provide women infected with Zika with comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care—including access to information, contraception and safe, legal abortion. The Zika epidemic has increased public debate on the need to liberalize Brazil’s abortion law, as abortion is currently only legal to save a woman’s life and in cases of rape, incest or a fetus with anencephaly.

The case decided on Nov. 29 centered on health-care providers at a clandestine abortion clinic who were arrested for providing illegal abortion services. In his decision, Justice Luís Roberto Barroso used legal reasoning that went beyond the specifics of the case at hand to address broader aspects of criminal abortion laws and their constitutionality. Indeed, Brazil’s constitution calls for gender equity protection of women’s reproductive rights.

“Women bear alone the integral burden of pregnancy,” Justice Barroso wrote. “Therefore there will only exist gender equality if women have the right to decide whether to continue a pregnancy or not.” His decision also points out that making abortion illegal doesn’t reduce the number of women having abortions—and increases deaths due to unsafe abortion.

While Brazil’s legal system dictates this court decision is not legally binding, the ruling does establish a precedent for future cases—and advocates for reproductive rights are rightfully celebrating this as a huge step forward. Importantly, the ruling is consistent with two other recent Supreme Court decisions that addressed to some extent women’s right to reproductive autonomy: one declaring abortion constitutional in cases of anencephaly and one declaring embryonic stem cell research constitutional (and thereby not granting legal rights to embryos).

The anti-choice opposition in Brazil is of course moving quickly to block further progress. Still, there is reason to celebrate. The trend in court rulings is clearly in support of expanding women’s right to safe, legal abortion. Ipas’s partners working in Brazil have found success in their efforts, and we’ll continue to support their work toward law change.