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How Brazil May Make It Harder For Rape Victims To Seek Abortions

It’s a nightmare scenario feared by women everywhere. After surviving the physical and emotional trauma of rape, you discover that you are pregnant.

When you decide to seek an abortion, the doctor at your local hospital is prohibited from discussing your options. First, you must file a police report and undergo a physical and mental exam. In other words, you must prove that you were raped. For your family and friends, helping you navigate this unimaginable situation could mean imprisonment.

That could soon be the new reality for women in Brazil, a nation that already outlaws abortion under almost all circumstances.

Abortion in Brazil is legal only in cases of rape, if the foetus suffers from severe brain damage, or if the pregnancy poses a direct threat to the mother’s health. But a new proposal working its way through the legislature, backed by one of the country’s most powerful evangelical politicians, would restrict access even further.

The proposed law, known as PL5069, would force women who become pregnant as a result of sexual assault to file a police report and undergo forensic and psychological exams before seeking an abortion. The law goes as far giving prison sentences to people who aid or advise a woman to have an abortion, including doctors. Some critics say the proposal would also make it harder for women to obtain forms of emergency contraceptives such as the "morning-after" pill.

Now, women across the country are rising up against the proposed law. In recent weeks, thousands of women have filled the streets of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, and Brasília, protesting the proposal and its author, Eduardo Cunha, leader of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies.

“Cunha did not anticipate the feminist voices coming from the streets,” Debora Diniz, a professor at the University of Brasília and part of the feminist research group Anis, said, following widespread demonstrations in November. “What we saw in this country, I could not imagine a month ago.”

When I learned about this it really opened my eyes.Our rights are being attacked.

Bruna de Lara, Activist
Critics of the bill say it could impact more than a woman’s right to abortion in those limited cases that involve rape. They believe it could expand the sexual and gender-based violence crisis in Brazil, a country where an estimated 15 women die daily because of their gender.

Bruna de Lara, a journalism student and a member of the feminist collective Não Me Kahlo, worries the law would go as far as changing the definition of sexual violence.

Currently, sexual violence is defined as all forms of non-consensual sexual interaction. If the law is passed, only women showing physical or psychological scars will be considered victims, and eligible for abortion, she said.

“When I learned about this it really opened my eyes,” she said, speaking in her native Portuguese. “Our rights are being attacked. The law can give precedence for other legislation that will restrict a woman’s right to her own body. We’ll be moving backward.”

Activists argue that treating an abortion as a criminal act, rather than a public health issue, harms women. A 2010 National Report on Abortion in Brazil, authored by two professors at the University of Brasília, found that, even with strict laws outlawing the practice, one in five Brazilian women have had an abortion. Half were hospitalised following the procedure. Sometimes the outcome can be fatal — abortion is the fifth leading cause of maternal mortality in Brazil.
Adriana Alonso Alvarez, the program coordinator for the Association for Women’s Rights in Development’s Women’s Rights Forum, said when you criminalise abortion, “you kill women.”

“You punish women who don’t have the means to deal with the situation,” she said. “Who are you to decide what the person should do? Women are dying because abortion is not legal.”

Still support for PL5069 and other pro-life legislation is widespread in the predominately Catholic country.

Regiane Marques de Souza, 40, is a mother of six who supports the proposed law. In December 2010, she was raped. Two months later, she discovered she was pregnant.

“When I found out that I was pregnant, I started panicking, I was crying all the time. When they took me to the hospital I was still crying,” she said in Portuguese. “I was so angry, but I didn’t have the courage to give a death sentence to the child in my stomach.”
When Regiane arrived at the hospital she told the doctors that she had been raped. She was informed of her right to a legal abortion. But Regiane decided to have the child. Her daughter is 4 years old today, “I always say it’s not the best decision [to abort]. Who will give you comfort? The child can give you a lot of happiness. Having an abortion will not help you forget.”

Dr. Lenise Garcia, director of Brasil Sem Aborto (Brazil Without Abortion), believes the proposed law is necessary in order to guarantee that an unwanted pregnancy is the result of rape and that the attacker will be reported to the police and held accountable for his actions.

“What the rapist wants is for the woman to have an abortion, this way no one will have to know that she was raped,” Garcia, who is also a professor at the Institute of Biology at the University of Brasília, said.

But activists worry that a requirement that rape victims identify their attackers could actually deter women from reporting the assaults and seeking help. According to figures from IPEA, a public policy think tank, 67 percent of sexual assaults against women are committed by a person known to the victim. About 70 percent of rape victims are children and adolescents.

Women pushing for change in Brazil say all those statistics point to a need to strengthen rights and protections for women overall. They hope the continued demonstrations on abortion and other issues will help make that message heard.

“We need to improve the debates, not just on abortion but on women’s rights in general,” de Lara said. “We need social mobilisation, we saw this, but it needs to continue because if not the politicians will forget.”