Brazil's Restrictive Abortion Laws Are Being Reconsidered By Its Supreme Court

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Under Brazil's current law, obtaining an abortion except in cases of rape, diagnosis of a brain-related birth defect, or in instances where it's necessary to save the woman's life is not only prohibited but also punishable with prison time. But could the law soon change? Brazil's Supreme Court began hearing arguments to decriminalize abortion Friday as part of a rare public hearing.

Brazil's top court has been asked to consider whether or not Brazil's restrictive abortion laws — which date back to the 1940s and punish women who obtain an abortion in any situation outside of the legally allowed exceptions with up to three years in prison — violate protections guaranteed in the country's 1988 constitution. As part of its hearing, the court will also consider a proposal to decriminalize abortion until the 12th week of gestation.

"No woman or girl should be forced to choose between continuing a pregnancy against her wishes and risking her health, life, and freedom to have a clandestine abortion," José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released earlier this week. "The case now before the Supreme Court is a crucial opportunity to provide women and girls in Brazil with greater reproductive choice, in line with their rights under international human rights law."

Human Rights Watch announced Tuesday that it would speak in favor of decriminalizing abortion at the hearing and urge the court to consider the country's human rights obligations.

In a petition to the court filed in March 2017 by the leftist Socialism and Liberty Party and the nongovernmental Institute of Bioethics, Human Rights and Gender (ANIS), the two groups argued that in criminalizing abortion, the country was violating Brazilians' constitutionally-protected right to dignity, equal protection, and access to health care.

That petition was taken up by Supreme Court Justice Rosa, who convened a two-day hearing Friday in order to garner input from the public, advocacy groups, and legal analysts. According to the New York Times, Weber noted that abortion rights were a "most sensitive and delicate" issue "since it involves matters of ethics, morality, religion, public health, and fundamental rights" in a statement issued in March.

But Brazil's restrictive abortion laws haven't stopped women in the country from getting abortions. According to a national survey conducted in 2016, one in five Brazilian women have had an illegal abortion by age 40. But because of Brazil's criminalization of abortion, the majority of these abortions are procured via unsafe methods that can have serious, even fatal, consequences. Data from Brazil's Health Ministry (and shared by Human Rights Watch) noted that more than 2 million women were hospitalized from 2008 to 2017 for abortion or miscarriage related complications while more than 4,400 women died between 2000 and 2016 from miscarriage and abortion-related health issues.

"Roe vs. Wade marked a turning point in the U.S.," Rebeca Mendes wrote in reference to ANIS and the Socialism and Liberty Party's petition to decriminalize abortion up in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. Mendes petitioned Brazil's Supreme Court for permission to obtain an abortion in 2017 but was denied on procedural grounds. "My hope is that a landmark moment in Brazil is similarly upon us."