It should not be too surprising that in Brazil, the country with the largest number of Roman Catholics (73% of the populace, or about 140 million), abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, when the mother’s life is in danger or when the fetus has severe genetic abnormalities. Indeed, the ban on abortion is an immovable plank in the campaign platforms of the two main candidates in Brazil’s upcoming presidential election. Yet a recent study revealed that 1 in 5 Brazilian women of child-bearing age has terminated a pregnancy, and statistics by the Health Ministry show that 200,000 women each year are hospitalized because of complications arising from unsafe abortions.

The study has shocked doctors, who were surprised at just how common the illegal procedures are. “I think the big conclusion we draw from this is that the woman who has an abortion is a typical Brazilian woman,” says Marcelo Medeiros, the economist and sociologist who coordinated the government-funded study. “She could be your cousin, your mother, your sister or your neighbor. All the evidence shows this is a serious problem and one that is not being debated openly.”

Outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who says he is personally against abortion, is on the record calling for the state to discuss it as a public-health, rather than as a moral, issue. The popular President, however, has done little to foster any wider debate on legalizing the procedure, and his government has not made reducing maternal mortality — which is tied to the unsafe abortions — one of its health goals. The two leading candidates to replace him in October’s presidential election have adopted a similar stance and both say they have no plans to change the current law. Only Marina Silva of Green Party, the outsider in the race, has said she supports a liberalization of current rules surrounding abortion. But even Silva has not said that she is advocating outright legalization.

In fact, Brazil’s Congress is discussing tightening legislation rather than relaxing it. A bill in the committee stage proposes criminalizing any act designed to deliberately damage a fetus and prohibiting any statements that promote even legal abortion, a move the New York City–based Center for Reproductive Rights said “totally disregards women’s health and lives.” Health professionals say they hope the bill will die with the end of the current legislature and are hopeful next year’s new Congress will be more forward-looking.

The new Fetal Rights Bill

The proposed measure imposes a duty on the family, society and the state to guarantee, with “absolute priority,” rights to life, health, development, honor, dignity, respect, liberty, and family to the “unborn.” The draft bill is intended to criminalize any act that intentionally causes death or harms the fetus, and any statement that “promotes” abortion, as well as the freezing, manipulation or use of the “unborn” as material for experimentation.

The legislation was approved in the Health and Social Security Commission of the Congress last week. If enacted, the law would be the first of its kind in Latin America. Luisa Cabal, director of the International Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights issued this response:

“We strongly urge Brazilian lawmakers to vote against this draft legislation as it makes its way through Congress. It is alarming that such a measure has even come under consideration, given that it clearly violates Brazil’s international human rights obligations, contradicts Brazilian national law and as a practical matter, reaches so far that it transforms every pregnant woman into a potential criminal.

“As a party to various human rights treaties, the Brazilian government is obligated to protect a woman’s human rights, including her rights to life, health—including reproductive health—equality and non-discrimination, privacy, autonomy, physical integrity, and to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The draft bill proposed by the Commission directly contravenes these rights by completely disregarding that the lives and health of a pregnant woman and her fetus are closely intertwined.

“The disastrous impact of such legislation that totally disregards women’s health and lives cannot be understated. If enacted, victims of sexual violence, women whose lives are at risk, and women who have been diagnosed with severe fetal abnormalities would cruelly be forced to carry their pregnancies to term. This—despite the fact that all of these circumstances are current legal grounds for abortion in Brazil. What’s more, international bodies that monitor country’s compliance with their human rights obligations have recognized women’s right to access to abortion when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, and in instances of fetal abnormality or a woman’s life or health is at risk.

“If enacted, the law would reach far beyond abortion, criminalizing any person who takes any action to harm a fertilized egg—including in the areas of in vitro fertilization, prenatal care, stem cell research, and even speaking about abortion. In short, potential criminals would range from the woman who has a miscarriage to the person who dares utter a word about comprehensive reproductive healthcare.

“Brazil is regarded as a leader in social and economic policies across Latin America. Passing this bill, the first of its kind, could have grave consequences in the region. Given the gross violations of both domestic and international law presented by the draft bill, and the certain harm it will inflict on women and their families, it is absolutely critical that members of Congress swiftly defeat this legislation.”

Birth-control advocates are dismayed that Roman Catholic Church still wields considerable power. Brazil was recently the scene of a controversy involving the excommunication of doctors who performed an abortion on a 9-year-old raped by her stepfather. Bishops last month pointedly told voters to vote for a presidential candidate who is “committed to unconditional respect for life.”(See the growth of crisis pregnancy centers in the U.S.)

And yet if the study’s findings are correct, abortion is alarmingly widespread given its illegal status. Although exact figures are impossible to determine, experts believe between 500,000 and 1 million pregnancies are terminated in Brazil each year. Around half of them are induced using a cocktail of drugs and the rest are performed in clandestine clinics. The number of women hospitalized from complications arising from illegal abortions fell by 40,000 between 2003 and last year. However, 200,000 women are still admitted each year, says Adson França, the special assistant to the Health Minister.

França says the federal government offers everything from condoms and contraceptive pills to vasectomies — all free — in every one of the country’s 5,565 municipalities. It has increased the budget for contraceptive measures sevenfold since 2003. But in spite of that, and for all Brazil’s undeniable progress in other health-related fields, maternal mortality has remained steady for 15 years, a fact researchers say is intimately linked to a lack of safe abortions. Specialists fear that unless the issue is treated more as a health one than as a moral one, that statistic will not change. “The Health Ministry has said all along that this is a public-health problem,” says França. “It should be up to the woman to decide how many children to have.”

Infos by ANDREW DOWNIE / SAO PAULO and the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR)