Women have taken to the streets by the thousands in Brazil to fight the conservative government’s latest threat to human rights in the country: a proposed total ban on abortion.
“A rapist is not a father,” declared one banner in Monday’s march in Florianopolis, the capital of the Southern state of Santa Catarina. “The rich abort. The poor die,” read another, highlighting the disproportionate impact outlawing abortion would have on poor and marginalized women who can’t access private clinics to seek safe secret abortions.
Abortion is currently legal in Brazil in cases of rape, if the mother’s life is in danger, or if the fetus suffers from the brain defect anencephaly. But last Wednesday, a special congressional commission approved a proposed constitutional amendment that, if passed in the lower house and the senate, would criminalize abortion by constitutionally changing the definition of “life.”
In Florianopolis, hundreds rallied Monday together with scores more in other cities across the country. They waved banners, chanted, and beat drums. Mothers danced with their daughters in the crowd.
“Our rights are being rolled back,” said Tatiana Zimmerman at the march. She’s a biology teacher and a member of the 8M women’s organization in Florianopolis. “What we are fighting for is women’s dignity, because this move puts our reproductive functions above our dignity and that is unacceptable. We’re protesting against this measure. It can’t go forward.”
Just five days before the march, a congressional committee opened the door for Brazilian lawmakers to do away with women’s access to abortion in limited circumstances. The measure was approved 18-1 by all of the men on the commission. The only woman voted against it.
Feminist and women’s organizations believe it is a Trojan horse to alter the definition of birth, and in turn criminalize abortion.
“The problem is that it alters the idea that guarantees the right to life,” said Glaucia de Oliveira Assis, an anthropology professor at Santa Catarina State University and a member of the university’s Research Group on Gender and Family Relations. “It becomes the right to life from the moment of conception. This impacts abortion, because if the change is made in the constitution, and someone is raped and becomes pregnant, the right to life of that little being prevails.”
The amendment is known as PEC 181/2015. It actually extends maternity leave for mothers of premature babies. But lawmakers modified the text to redefine life from inception instead of at birth.
“Push push, and the amendment will fall,” women chanted with raised fists as they marched through the city center and wound their way past the public market en route to the symbolic steps of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Florianopolis. The setting sun cast their long shadows across Paulo Fontes avenue running parallel with the waterfront a few blocks away, while cars honked behind them bringing up the rear of the march.
Despite the current narrow circumstances in which abortion is allowed, it is estimated that there are more than 1 million abortions in Brazil annually. Unsafe abortion is a leading cause of maternal mortality in the country, as women are forced to resort to underground and often risky services if they can’t afford to access a private clinic.
“Legal, safe, free abortion, so we don’t have to die. Prevention in the schools through sex education,” stated a sign at the march. “Legalize abortion, for the right to choose,” read another.
Underpinning last week’s congressional maneuver is a culture war playing out across Brazil, which in many ways mirrors the United States. The move was applauded by the evangelical congressional caucus, which pushed for the change. Many of these representatives say the alteration of the text in PEC 181 is only symbolic and that it won’t have an impact on the legality of the right to abortion. But evangelical representatives have vocally called for outlawing abortion without exception, even in cases of rape.
The number of Evangelicals have grown exponentially in recent years, now comprising roughly 25 percent of the population and a powerful conservative lobby in Congress. Evangelical politicians also belong to the renowned Bible, Beef and Bullets caucus, which brings together evangelical Christians, large landowners, and pro-gun lawmakers.
Meanwhile, right-wing movements also have grown in recent years and become emboldened, including by the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. Afro-Brazilian religious communities have suffered attacks and hate crimes are reportedly on the rise. Conservative protests recently forced the closure of an LGBT art installation in Porto Alegre. These right-wing movements even rallied against U.S. gender theorist Judith Butler during her trip to Brazil.
For Assis, the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff opened the door for these movements to flourish, and it also brought into question the ideas of diversity and equality that are essential pillars of social democracy.
“The debate over corruption and the political crisis brought with it a conservative agenda that had not existed in the country for a long time. That doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. It did, but it didn’t have legitimacy,” said Assis before the march outside of Santa Catarina State University’s Center for Education and Human Sciences. “When you question a democratically-elected government and remove this government from power, you allow other social forces to strengthen and acquire legitimacy.”
PEC 181 is now headed to another commission and then to a pair of votes in the lower house. Speaker Rodrigo Maia has come out against the amendment over its criminalization of abortion in the case of rape. But in Brazilian politics, anything is always up for grabs.
Activists know this well. PEC 181 is only the latest government attack on political and social rights in Brazil. Workers and unions marched late last week against the labor reform that went into effect on Saturday. Under the new legislation, bosses are now permitted to negotiate directly with their employees, sidestepping unions and the labor code. Meanwhile, Indigenous and quilombo communities of former Black slaves await a Supreme Court ruling that could eliminate the right to land for thousands.
At Monday’s march in Florianopolis, some women declined to be interviewed because of fear of reprisals from local law enforcement.
“We have lived moments of terror, of the criminalization of protesters, and it’s much more serious than you see in the newspapers,” said one young woman named Mayara.
Nevertheless, women across the country have promised to keep the pressure on to block lawmakers from rolling back their rights.
“We are here,” said Zimmerman. “We are not going to lose our voice. Now that women have come together and we have an idea about our rights, we will not let them be taken away again.”
Mike Fox is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Brazil. Follow him on Twitter @mfox_us.
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