Brazilian Congress
The Brazilian Congress in Brasilia AFP

São Paulo, Brazil – Brazil's lower house of Congress last week fast-tracked the urgent discussion of a bill put forward by conservatives which would equate abortion with homicide and restrict legal abortion to 22 weeks of gestation, including in cases of rape.

In Brazil, abortion is currently legal only in cases of rape, the mother facing risk of death, or when the fetus is anencephalic -- a condition that severely affects the baby's nervous system. The proposed legislation would restrict the timeline in these cases to 22 weeks instead of at any stage of pregnancy, as the law currently allows.

Put forth by conservative lawmaker Sóstenes Cavalcante, the bill drew swift condemnation from advocacy groups and thousands of Brazilians took to the streets to protest.

The bill, if passed, would be a "significant setback" for women's reproductive rights, Melina Fachin, Deputy Head of the Public Law Department at the Federal University of Paraná, told Latin Times.

According to Fachin, the proposed bill ignores the complexity and circumstances that may lead a woman to seek to terminate a pregnancy at an advanced stage.

"Equating abortion with homicide disregards specific and sensitive cases, such as pregnancy resulting from rape, where the victim already faces enormous physical and psychological trauma. The approval could create an even more hostile and punitive environment for women, discouraging them from seeking safe and legal health services," she added.

Under the proposed law, if a woman terminates a pregnancy after 22 weeks, even in the case of rape, she could be prosecuted for homicide and sentenced to between six and 20 years in prison. In Brazil, the crime of rape carries a sentence of six to 12 years in prison, meaning a woman convicted of homicide for abortion -- even in cases of rape -- could receive nearly double the sentence of a convicted rapist.

Instead of providing support and protection, Fachin said, the bill advances the criminalization and stigmatization of women, increasing inequality and violating women's fundamental rights to health, autonomy, and dignity.

However, she clarified, the bill's constitutionality could be challenged before the Supreme Court even if passed.

"The principle of equality guarantees that all are equal before the law, without distinction of any kind," said Fachin. "By imposing a disproportionate penalty and treating abortion similarly to homicide, the bill violates this principle, failing to recognize the specific situations faced by women. Also, the right to health implies access to safe and adequate health services."

Severely criminalizing abortion, she said, could lead women to resort to unsafe methods, putting their lives at risk. Brazil's public health system (SUS) recorded 72 legal abortions in children and teenagers under 14 years old in 2019. Also according to SUS, between 2013 and 2022, on average, more than 21,000 girls under 14 years old gave birth. Of these, more than 70% were Black.

Political reactions to the bill

Cavalcante, the conservative lawmaker who put forth the bill, is part of former President Jair Bolsonaro's right-wing Liberal Party (PL). The bill was also signed by 32 other conservative deputies.

In a speed vote last week, the Lower House approved an urgent discussion of the bill, meaning it could be put to a vote in Congress without having to go through the normal committee process.

With no date set for a vote, the discussion has already caused a stir in Brazil's government.

Deputy Eli Borges of the Evangelical Parliamentary Front said that abortion after 22 weeks is "literally child murder because this fetus is fully capable of living outside the mother's womb." Left-wing deputy Sâmia Bomfim, on her end, said the bill would criminalize children and rape victims. "A child is not a mother, and a rapist is not a father," she said.

Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was attending the G7 summit in Italy last week, called the bill "crazy." His Minister of Human Rights and Citizenship, Silvio Almeida, also criticized the measure, saying, "It is hard to believe that Brazilian society, with the numerous problems it has, is currently discussing whether a raped woman and a rapist have the same value under the law."

Brazil's Chamber of Deputies featured a poll on its website where the public can weigh in on bills under discussion. As of Friday, 88% of the nearly 850,000 respondents disagreed with the proposal.

"A child is not a mother" campaign

On Thursday, thousands of Brazilians protested in the streets of major cities including São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and the capital Brasília.

Women's rights groups formed the campaign "A child is not a mother," which aims to convince deputies to reject the bill through a petition that already had more than 300,000 signatures as of Friday.

The rights groups argue that, should the law be approved, children will be disproportionately affected because, "in cases of sexual abuse, there is more delay in discovering or even identifying the pregnancy" before 22 weeks of gestation.

"If approved, the bill will force girls who are victims of violence to continue the pregnancy and will convict those who abort after 22 weeks of the crime of homicide, potentially imprisoning them for up to 20 years," the campaign statement reads. "We will regress in the sexual and reproductive rights guaranteed by law since 1940."

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