“Women bear alone the burden of pregnancy. Therefore, there will only exist gender equality if women have the right to decide whether to continue a pregnancy or not.” So spoke Roberto Barroso, lead justice on Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court when ruling that abortion is no longer a crime when performed in the first trimester. The ruling stems from a 2013 case in Brazil involving clandestine abortion procedures in which five individuals were charged.
While the judges dropped all charges in the case and indicated that they favor decriminalization of abortion, the ruling does not make abortion legal across the board—the current circumstances under which it is legally permissible continue to be confined to rape, endangerment of the woman’s life or a brain-dead fetus.
Despite its current limitations, the ruling represents a step forward, specifically taken in the context of the justices’ opinions. All were unanimous in their observation that fear of imprisonment— women face up to three years if convicted, with doctors facing up to four years—failed to produce any significant reduction in abortion rates. Justice Barroso went on to assert that criminalization of abortion is “incompatible with the empowerment of women, their physical and mental integrity and their sexual and reproductive rights.”
Opposition towards the justices’ ruling is, however, not inconsequential. Brazil’s president, Michael Temer, is a staunch “antichoice advocate. Coupled with his stance is the substantial opposition by the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (NCBB) towards any efforts to decriminalize abortion. In a country that the Pew Research Center asserts to have the largest Catholic population on Earth, the bishops present a perinnial obstacle to full decriminalization. No sooner had the justices made their ruling public then the president of the NCBB, Cardinal Sergio da Rocha, condemned the court’s decision.
The court was set to hear another potentially landmark abortion case on December 7, 2016, that dealt with abortion and Zika pregnancies. That hearing, however, has been postponed indefinitely. Of majority Catholic countries, Brazil has the highest instances of abortion, most of which are clandestine. According to the World Health Organization, 800,000 extralegal abortions are administered annually.