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Brazil´s Supreme Court A Step Closer to Decriminalizing Abortion

Chance to Finally Uphold Women’s and Pregnant People´s Rights

People take part in a march in defense of legal abortion on International Safe Abortion Day at Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on September 28, 2023. © 2023 Cris Faga/NurPhoto via AP Photo

Brazil’s Supreme Court is now considering a case that could decriminalize abortion in the country up to 12 weeks of gestation.

This case had previously been on hold since 2018, when the Court held a public hearing at which Human Rights Watch urged it to consider Brazil’s obligations under international law in reaching its ruling. Brazil’s current legislation regulating abortion, which dates to 1940, is incompatible with the country's human rights obligations. Abortion is criminalized except in cases of sexual violence, when the life of the pregnant woman is in danger, or when a fatal fetal condition known as anencephaly is detected.

United Nations rights bodies have repeatedly urged Brazil to decriminalize abortion, concluding that denying women, girls, and other pregnant people access to abortion is a form of discrimination, jeopardizing, among others, the rights to privacy, life, health, information, and to not be subjected to cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.

Justice Rosa Weber, former President of the Court, cast her vote in the case on September 22, just before her retirement, emphasizing that motherhood is a choice, not a coercive obligation, and forcing someone to continue a pregnancy would represent a form of institutional violence against the physical, psychological, and moral integrity of the woman. The remaining justices will vote at a public hearing expected to be held in the coming months.

If the full court decides to uphold women’s rights, Brazil would join other Latin American countries that have decriminalized abortion in recent years such as Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico. This would be a key victory for the Green Tide abortion rights movement and could drive positive change in  other countries in the region. 

Local organizations in Latin America, including Anis (Institute for Bioethics, Human Rights and Gender), which brought the lawsuit before the Court, and other Brazilian civil society groups, have worked for years to achieve decriminalization of abortion. The concerted effort of women’s rights organizations working together at global and local levels has had a huge impact in advancing toward laws more respectful of human rights.

Women and other pregnant people in Brazil have waited too long for their rights to be guaranteed. This judgement is long overdue and an opportunity for Brazil to finally start ensuring everyone can access safe and legal abortion services in line with international human rights standards.

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