How the pandemic accelerated attacks to abortion rights in Brazil

Illustration by Daniela Gilsanz

A moment of crisis is always a time for us to reconsider our priorities. It’s when it becomes clear what is important and what isn’t. We all had to rethink our priorities when the coronavirus pandemic started — and when I say “we all” I’m not saying just you and me, but also the governments. Considering the measures taken by the Brazilian government in the first nine month of the pandemic that already killed more than 200,000 Brazilians, we can say that their priority is to ban abortion.

In March, in the very beginning of the pandemic, the biggest legal abortion service in the country, at Pérola Byington Hospital, was shut down because it was considered a non-essential service. Days later, after a petition was sent to State-level judges, the service returned. However, further investigation from several magazines showed that 45% of legal abortion services in the country shut down with the pandemic, leaving half of the states without a single legal abortion provider.

In April, Luiz Henrique Mandetta left his position as Minister of Health and some conservative and religious websites used the situation to criticize Mandetta for not changing the abortion laws — something a minister can’t do. President Bolsonaro’s only demand for a new minister was that it had to be someone against abortion. The chosen one, Nelson Teich, left the position after 28 days. Since the middle of May, the Ministry of Health is commanded by a member of the military.

The Supreme Court was set to deliberate on an action involving the Zika virus in late April. A 2015 Zika outbreak showed that pregnant women who contracted the virus were more likely to give birth to children with microcephaly. The action at the court asked for accessible healthcare for children with microcephaly, lifelong governmental support and also the possibility of legal abortion for women diagnosed with Zika. On April 15th, social networks were taken by the fake news that the action was only about legalizing abortion, which caused turmoil and misinformation. In the end, the Supreme Court rejected the action.

In May a recording of a reunion of ministers was made public after a plea from the former Minister of Justice. In this reunion, the Minister of Woman, Family and Human Rights — and staunch anti-abortion evangelical pastor — Damares Alves showed once again her obsession with the issue. She talked twice in the reunion about abortion: first she asked if women with coronavirus would also want to have abortions — in an allusion to the action being judged by the Supreme Court — and complained that the Ministry of Health was full of feminists wanting to legalize abortion.

In early June the president’s disproportionate reaction to a technical note published by the Ministry of Health fed the idea that the Ministry is full of pro-abortion people. The technical note highlighted that the access to contraceptives and legal abortion should be considered essential during the pandemic, but the president declared that the note wanted to legalize abortion in Brazil — ignoring that a technical note cannot change the law. After the president complained, the Ministry deleted the note and fired the professionals who wrote it.

In late June, less than three weeks after the professionals were fired, the doctor Raphael Câmara was nominated for the Secretary of Primary Attention in the Ministry. In 2018, Câmara had participated in a hearing at the Supreme Court, where he used fake statistics to say that it’s not necessary to decriminalize abortion in the country.

Between February and June of 2020, ten anti-abortion bills were presented to the Congress. Meanwhile, the evangelical branch of the Congress kept rejecting bills fighting violence against women whenever they mentioned “reproductive health” — the term would be an analogy to abortion, according to those ultraconservative politicians. After retiring the term, two bills passed on the Congress in July, but less than 24 hours later a fake news campaign was created saying that “In the middle of the night, Rodrigo Maia [the Speaker of the House] and his “henchmen” had legalized abortion up until the 22nd week of pregnancy”. The fake information was shared over 5,000 times on Facebook — including by far-right congresswomen who knew the truth but preferred to feed a lie to their supporters — and it fueled the rage against Maia and the Congress.

The use of “reproductive health” in UN documents was also the reason why the Brazilian chancellor refused to back two resolutions at the UN assembly in early July. The first was about guaranteeing women’s rights during the pandemic — the chancellor also criticized the use of the terms “sex ed” and “modern contraceptives” in the document — and the second was about stopping female genital mutilation. The justification was, again, that “reproductive health” is a synonymous of abortion.

In July, the “pro-life” people of the government ignored the fact that 80% of pregnant women who died from COVID-19 were Brazilian. However, in August, these same people live-streamed an anti-abortion conference.

The month of August brought the cruelest case of the year: a raped 10-year-old was almost denied a legal abortion. She had to travel 900 miles, hide in a car trunk to avoid a “pro-life” mob, but couldn’t avoid being harassed inside the hospital for two doctors who threatened and bullied her. After receiving proper care and being dismissed, the girl and her grandmother, who was accompanying her, entered a protection program, changed their names and moved to a different town. The doctor who did the procedure was excommunicated for the second time; besides that, a religious group denounced him at the local medicine council for “unethical behavior”.

When the procedure was finalized, minister Damares declared that the abortion was to be deeply regretted. At first, it looked like she was referring to the girl regretting the decision, but she meant that all women in the country would soon be affected by what had happened.

Ten days after the 10-year-old girl was guaranteed the legal abortion — and also after it was revealed that over 1,000 legal abortions were made in the first semester of 2020, a new high for Brazil — a nefarious reaction came. The Ministry of Health published an ordinance to make access to legal abortion more difficult in the country. According to this ordinance, all doctors, when overseeing pregnant women and girls victims of sexual assault, would have to call the police and start an investigation right there at the hospital. In this investigation, the victim would have to offer information about the place and time the crime occurred, and also describe the rapist, including if he was drugged or drunk while he committed the crime — which could be used to diminish his guilt. The victim would also have to sign a paper agreeing on severe punishment if she provided fake information, sign another paper about the risks of abortion and be offered to see the image of the embryo in a sonogram. The abortion would then be allowed only after unanimous decision of a team comprised of at least three health professionals. If any doctor or police investigator doubted that the woman was raped, she could be denied the legal abortion and be sued instead. The ordinance, mixing bureaucracy with intimidation, would, according to the government, “guarantee juridical security to legal abortion”, but it really wanted to make women think twice before looking for a legal right. It also corroborated with the idea that most women lie about having been raped in order to have access to legal abortion.

The night the ordinance was published, minister Damares stated in a live with president Bolsonaro that her ministry wouldn’t push for a change in the current abortion laws. However, three days after that declaration, Damares nominated for the Department of Promotion of Women’s Dignity at the Ministry of Woman, Family and Human Rights a woman called Teresinha de Almeida Ramos Neves, who has, for years, compared abortion to infanticide even when the pregnancy is the result of rape. This nomination, like Raphael Câmara’s nomination in June, showed that the plan is not to change abortion laws, but to make those laws impossible to be enforced, through public policies to discourage seeking legal abortion.

Congresswomen quickly reacted to the ordinance. First they proposed a bill to nullify the ordinance in the Congress. Even though the Congress spokesperson, Rodrigo Maia, called the ordinance “illegal, absurd and unconstitutional”, he didn’t put it to vote, as he avoids controversial bills. The congresswomen then presented a case to the Supreme Court twice, as the ordinance was modified to exclude the part about a mandatory sonogram to show the embryo to the victim before the procedure. The Brazilian Supreme Court may take years to reach a verdict. The current president of the Supreme Court, like Maia, tries to avoid polemic cases.

In September, the Supreme Court condemned a priest who had, 15 years ago, stopped a legal abortion by getting a habeas corpus for the fetus. The 19-year-old pregnant woman, who had already initiated the dilation process, was sent home. After 11 days bleeding and in pain, she delivered a girl who died minutes after birth due to several malformations. With this decision the Supreme Court set a limit on how much the clergy can interfere with someone’s personal affairs.

In September and October, new facts about the 10-year-old’s case were revealed. First a newspaper revealed that minister Damares had offered a bribe to Social Service Workers taking care of the girl: she’d give them a jeep, TVs, computers and air conditioners and in exchange they’d keep the girl in custody for a few weeks and then send her to a religiously-affiliated hospital where she would be submitted to a C-section. This denunciation is now under investigation. Then, another newspaper revealed that the First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro had taken nearly 3,000 dollars from coronavirus testing and gave the money for an anti-abortion NGO that tried to stop the girl’s procedure. Also in October, documents from the Ministry of Health revealed that the polemic ordinance was published after the minister was pressured by anti-abortion groups.

Founded in Brazil in 1993, the group Catholics for Choice suffered a legal blow in October, as a judge ruled that they couldn’t call themselves catholics because their goals were against the Church. They were not notifified by the decision and only became aware of the case when it was reported on journalistic websites.

In late October, Brazil, the US, Egypt, Hungary, Uganda, Indonesia and 26 other countries signed the Geneva Consensus, a document aiming to protect life since the conception and the traditional patriarchal family. The consensus would serve as the basis for a conservative alternative to the UN, a plan that will probably be aborted under Joe Biden’s presidency.

As the Consensus was signed, minister Damares and the Minister of Foreign Relations condemned the use of abortion as family planning, which gives margin to the interpretation that some contraceptives are abortive. This is a huge red flag, because more and more Brazilian politicians, religious leaders and even healthcare professionals are asking for a ban on contraceptives like the IUD and the morning-after bill because their supposed abortive properties.

It took less than two weeks for the signature of the Geneva Consensus to echo in a Brazilian governmental decision. In early November a list of goals for 2031 was published in another governmental ordinance, and among them there was “promoting the right to life since conception until natural death, observing the rights of the unborn”. This document shows where we’re heading towards — and we can’t forget that the secretary of family of the Ministry of Woman, Family and Human Rights has recently traveled to Poland — a country that banned abortion in almost all circumstances this year — with her expenses paid by a Polish anti-abortion group. While the secretary was getting acquainted with the Polish far-right and their actions to take away women’s rights, legal abortion services are overseeing twice as many patients as before the pandemic, most of them rape victims who were sexually assaulted during lockdown and now are past the first trimester of pregnancy, which makes some abortion providers refuse to do the procedure.

Even without a pandemic, many of these attacks would come, like the Geneva Consensus and the list of goals until 2031. The pandemic brought different and more intense attacks: for instance, how many of the abortion providers that closed in the beginning of the pandemic reopened? How many will never reopen? We still don’t know if there will be vaccines for everybody, but one thing is certain: attacks to abortion rights will keep coming in 2021. And we will keep fighting against them.



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