Oct 3, 2023 - World

Brazil's Supreme Court considers decriminalizing abortion

A woman holds a sign in support of legal abortion during a march on International Safe Abortion Day in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Sept. 28. Photo: Miguel Schincariol/AFP via Getty Images

Brazil's highest court is debating whether to decriminalize abortions that occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Why it matters: In Brazil, Latin America's most populous country, religion runs deep, yet polling shows support for a total ban has waned. The country could follow in the footsteps of other major Latin American countries that have expanded abortion rights over the past few years.

  • The most recent polls show support for prohibiting abortion in Brazil dropped from 41% in 2018 to 32% last year.

What to know: The issue is before the nation's Supreme Court through a special legal review process triggered last month by Chief Justice Rosa Weber, who retired Monday after voting to legalize abortion.

  • Weber argues in a 129-page document that the criminal code provisions and precedent on abortion are unconstitutional as they violate health rights and women's autonomy.

Yes, but: It's not clear when the rest of the 10 justices will vote

  • Other cases triggered through the same review mechanism, such as the recognition of same-sex unions, lingered for years before the court ruled.
  • The new chief justice, Roberto Barroso, has said he might use a rule allowing him to delay a vote for at least three months while public debate on the matter continues.

Zoom in: The only exceptions to Brazil's abortion ban are cases involving a risk to the pregnant person's life, a victim of statutory rape or a fetus that has anencephaly.

  • But even in those exceptional cases, women have difficulty accessing safe abortions because many doctors fear prosecution and because of the high cost of traveling to a nearby clinic, says Laura Molinari, coordinator of the group Nem Presa Nem Morta (Neither Jailed Nor Dead).
  • "Most women do not have that opportunity," Molinari says.
  • She adds that the country's Afro-Brazilian, Indigenous and most impoverished populations — who also have less access to reproductive planning and health services — are particularly impacted.

State of play: Brazilians who are prosecuted for having abortions face up to three years in prison, while doctors who aid them face up to four.

  • It's unclear how many people have been charged or prosecuted for having an abortion because there is no national database.
  • But according to a 2021 investigation by independent news outlet Catarinas, 300 people were charged from 2015 to 2019. There wasn't information on the outcome of those cases.
  • The most recent national data on abortion, from a 2021 survey carried out by anthropologist Débora Diniz, found that one in seven Brazilian women 40 years or older — about 15% of all women — have had an abortion.
  • More than half of them said they terminated a pregnancy when they were 19 years old or younger.

What they're saying: Reproductive rights activists say that after years of working to overturn the law, the fact that abortion is up for debate is a win.

  • The debate is an opportunity to get "rid of stigmas by showing abortion is happening regardless and the impacts of it being illegal," says Carla Angelini, a university researcher in São Paulo and member of Católicas Pelo Direito de Decidir (Catholics for Choice).
  • Activists say keeping up social attention and pressure on the topic will be key so the court's debate isn't paused indefinitely.
  • "We can't afford to wait much longer for this matter to be voted on," Molinari says.

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