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People participate in the SlutWalk protest on Copacabana Beach, where pope Francis will celebrate mass at night, in Rio de Janeiro, July, 2013. The sign reads "No more criminalization of women, abortion is a right."  © REUTERS/Pilar Olivares
(São Paulo) – Brazilian lawmakers should reject a dangerous constitutional amendment that would prohibit abortion in all circumstances, Human Rights Watch said today. The proposed amendment would ban abortion even for pregnancies resulting from rape, or when the life of the woman is in danger.

The proposed abortion ban is part of a constitutional amendment being considered on December 12, 2017, by a special congressional committee of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies. The committee approved the amendment in November, in a controversial vote, with 18 men voting yes and 1 woman voting no. The committee could vote on the final text of the proposed amendment on December 12 before it goes to the full Chamber of Deputies for a vote. To become law and amend the Constitution, the legislation would need a super majority – or three-fifths of votes – in both houses of Congress, and the president’s signature.

“A total abortion ban would have devastating consequences for women and girls in Brazil,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Under this cruel amendment, even women and girls pregnant as a result of rape and those with life-threatening complications would be forced to either continue their pregnancies against their will or risk imprisonment and other health dangers, including death, by having clandestine abortions.”

Abortion is legal in Brazil only in cases of rape, when necessary to save a woman’s life, or when the fetus suffers from anencephaly, a fatal congenital brain disorder. Women and girls who terminate pregnancies under any other circumstances face up to three years in prison. According to some media reports, in 2014 alone, at least 33 women were arrested for abortion, seven of whom were reported by doctors after they went to hospitals in need of post-abortion care.

Human Rights Watch documented the consequences of Brazil’s restrictions on abortion in a July report on the impact of the Zika outbreak. Some doctors interviewed for the report said they had treated women and girls in the past year who had used to caustic acid or other unsafe methods to try to induce abortion. One 23-year-old woman who was raped as an adolescent and had heavy bleeding after a clandestine abortion told Human Rights Watch: “I didn’t have a lot of information… I bled a lot.” More than 900 women have died from unsafe abortion in Brazil since 2005, according to Health Ministry data.

Brazil’s restrictions on abortion are incompatible with its human rights obligations. The criminalization of abortion in Brazil negatively affects many human rights, including women’s rights to life, health, nondiscrimination and equality, privacy, and to be free from torture and from cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment. International human rights treaties require governments to respect women’s reproductive and other human rights. Authoritative interpretations of these treaties by United Nations experts call for the removal of criminal penalties for abortion.

“Brazil’s existing restrictions on access to abortion already endanger women and girls,” Vivanco said. “The proposed amendment would make the dire situation for reproductive rights in Brazil even worse.”

There was notable progress on expanding access to reproductive rights in Latin America during 2017, Human Rights Watch said. Chile ended its longstanding total abortion ban, and decriminalized abortion if the life of the pregnant woman is at risk, if the pregnancy is the result of rape, or if the fetus will not survive outside the womb. On December 6, lawmakers in Bolivia voted to ease abortion restrictions by allowing adolescent girls to access abortion through the first eight weeks of pregnancy.

Two cases pending before the Supreme Court in Brazil could decriminalize abortion in certain circumstances. One case argues that pregnant women infected with Zika virus should have access to abortion. The other seeks to decriminalize abortion on any grounds through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Human Rights Watch has filed amicus briefs in both cases.

In late November, Rebeca Mendes Silva Leite, a 30-year-old woman from São Paulo, petitioned Brazil’s Supreme Court for permission to legally terminate an unplanned pregnancy. Justice Rosa Weber denied the request for procedural reasons, but did not rule on its merits. After the decision, Rebeca traveled to Colombia, where she had a legal abortion.

Several other Latin American countries – Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Suriname, Haiti, and Honduras – still ban abortion completely. In a 2017 investigation, Human Rights Watch found that Nicaragua’s total abortion ban has not stopped abortion, but has made it more unsafe. Research around the world shows that when governments restrict abortion, women still have abortions – they just have more dangerous ones. According to a UN report, the average unsafe abortion rate was more than four times greater in countries with restrictive abortion policies in 2011 than in countries with liberal abortion policies.

“The members of the Congressional committee should reject the dangerous abortion ban,” Vivanco said. “Brazilian women and girls desperately need greater access to reproductive choice, not to have what little choice there is available to them whittled away further.”

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