Brazil’s Congress wants to ban all abortions – even for rape victims

abortions brazil law rape victims

Women stage act asking for the right to have legal abortions. Photo: Fernando Frazão/ABr

In July 2013, millions of Brazilians crowded the streets asking for political change. Just a year later, however, voters elected our most conservative Congress since 1964 – the year the military staged a coup d’état. And this week, we witnessed just how conservative our lawmakers can be. A special committee approved an amendment to the Constitution that would ban all abortions in Brazil, including for victims of rape. The vote in favor of the bill was an astounding 18 to 1.

According to the bill’s rapporteur Congressman Tadeu Mudalen, “life starts at the moment of conception and therefore should be protected by law.” Mudalen is a member of the House’s evangelical caucus.

Since 1940, Brazil’s criminal code has allowed abortions for pregnancies that are the result of rape, or for pregnancies that would endanger the mother’s life. In recent years, women have also been able to abort anencephalic fetuses. Courts held that it would be traumatic to force the mother to bear a child that would invariably die after delivery due to its severe birth defects.

Women who attempt illegal abortions can face prison sentences of up to three years. In February 2015, a doctor from São Paulo reported a 19-year-old girl to the police; she had been admitted to a hospital with signs of internal bleeding that typically follow a poorly performed illegal abortion. The girl was arrested, and the doctor faced an investigation for breaching the doctor-patient confidentiality principle.

Despite the harsh penalties, an estimated 8.7 million women in Brazil have already had at least one abortion, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. The NGO Ações Afirmativas estimate that in 2013 alone, there were over 850,000 abortions in the country. Data from the Ministry of Health reveals that just over 1,500 of those were actually legal terminations of pregnancy.

During a speech to the House committee, the evangelical Congressman Pastor Eurico said: “Where is the love for women? And for the children? This is not about religion. We are against this mass killing of the innocents.”

abortions brazil

Father Pedro Stepien, director of Brazil’s Pro-Life Movement, talks to a House committee

Yet women’s rights groups complain that the loudest voices in the Brazilian government’s abortion rights debate are actually men. “Women – who are most affected by this issue – were not invited to take part in the conversation,” says Maíra Kubík Mano, a Ph.D. in Social Sciences and a professor at the Gender and Feminism Center of the University of Bahia.

The 18 committee votes in favor of the bill were all given by male lawmakers. The only congresswoman to vote, Erika Kokay, was the sole ‘nay’.

Kubík Mano continues: “If this bill passes, it will most affect poor, black Brazilian women, as they can’t afford to be treated in clandestine abortion clinics.”

Indeed, there is a typical profile of women who seek abortions. Roughly 90 percent of these women haven’t studied further than high school, and have limited access to birth control and sex education.

Religious groups v. the Supreme Court

The House’s special committee was set up by members of the evangelical caucus. It was a reaction against a 2016 Supreme Court decision that opened the door for the decriminalization of abortions.

One year ago – nearly to the day – a Supreme Court mini-group[1] ruled that abortions shouldn’t be considered a crime when performed within the first three months of pregnancy. The decision concerned a specific case regarding employees of an illegal abortion clinic in Rio de Janeiro.

At the time, Justice Luís Roberto Barroso wrote in his decision: “Women bear alone the burden of pregnancy. Therefore, gender equality will only exist if women have the right to decide whether to continue a pregnancy or not.”

According to public records, the House’s special committee scheduled only three public debates during the analysis phase of the bill. Lawmakers invited seven experts to speak, and they were all against legalizing abortions. Not what you would consider a fair and balanced debate.

Hiding controversial articles

The bill was nicknamed the “Trojan House amendment” since it was introduced in a bill that concerned maternity leave for mothers of premature babies. The abortion clause turned a labor issue into a religious piece of legislation.

Brazilian congressmen have the habit of introducing “hidden” amendments. It allows them to change the country’s laws without having to face much scrutiny from fellow representatives or the public.

This practice has the odd name of jabuti, which is Portuguese for tortoise. The term was coined by former House Speaker Ulysses Guimarães in the 1960s. According to historical accounts, Guimarães said something to the effect of: “Jabutis don’t climb on trees. If there is a jabuti on a tree, it’s not natural – somebody put it there.”

When laws are approved that contain irrelevant amendments, we can apply the same logic: if there is an extraneous modification, someone clearly put it there. As responsible citizens, we must critically consider what is to be gained from these jabutis.


[1] To quicken the pace of everyday life at the Supreme Court, justices work in “mini-groups” of up to five – the Chief Justice is not a part of them. These mini-groups rule on matters of less importance that don’t require a decision from all eleven justices.

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