Argentina became the second democratic country in Latin America to legalize abortion. Crowds in Buenos Aires gathered to celebrate the Senate’s 38 to 29 vote on a bill which passed in Argentina’s lower house. The country is taking a stance against the status quo that has limited access to abortion across the entire continent for many years. Although these developments have been celebrated by women’s rights activists in Latin America, it is unclear if the legalization of abortion in Argentina will put pressure on Brazil, with its conservative President Jair Bolsonaro, to do the same thing. 

What does this mean for the region? 

Under Brazil’s penal code, abortion is only allowed in instances that save a pregnant woman’s life, or when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest. Brazil’s ban on abortion has been in place since a presidential degree from 1941 that remains to this day. Brazil’s stance on abortion has been preserved with President Bolsonaro’s staunch criticism of abortion. In response to Argentina’s recent decision to legalize abortion, the President of Brazil said that “we will always fight to protect the lives of the innocent!” and that he “deeply regrets the lives of Argentine children.” Although the far-right president has no intention of following Argentina’s new health initiative, the question of accessible abortion clinics remains salient in Brazil. 

Bolsonaro’s words disregard the reality that abortion prohibition disproportionately impacts women in poverty, as “the women most affected by the criminalization of abortion are the poorest, the most vulnerable,” says Debora Diniz, a Latin American studies researcher at Brown University. It is clear that abortion is not a political, religious, or social issue, but a public health one that needs to be addressed through thoughtful public policy. 

There is a correlation between abortion and women in poverty. There are around 500,000 illegal abortions that occur in Brazil every year, resulting in the deaths of over 200 women annually. There are also legal repercussions for getting an abortion, as women in Brazil who get illegal abortions can face up to three years in prison. Women without the economic means turn to unsafe backalley operations or do the procedure themselves, which can result in failed abortions or the death of the woman. On the other hand, wealthier women in Brazil can pay expensive fees at upscale clinics with authorized doctors. Diniz is hopeful that legalization in neighboring countries will benefit Brazilian women, as she said that “with the changes in legislation in Latin America, women don’t need to go to the U.S., don’t need a visa to get an abortion.” 

Although a similar abortion legalization bill failed to pass in 2018, Argentina, with the help of The National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, pushed for years for safe legal abortion. Members of this group often wear green scarfs at protests, and the organization has promised “to continue monitoring [the government of Argentina’s] compliance with the law.” The Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity headed by Elizabeth Gomez Alcorta said that criminal charges against those women in doctors who performed abortion should be lifted and that “[the ministry] is going to carry out its leadership.” 

With newly-elected President Alberto Fernandez in support of this cause as well as Argentina’s legislature, consisting of more than 40 per cent female lawmakers, the conditions for legalization became more favourable over the past two years. However, Brazil’s congress only consists of 15 per cent female lawmakers, making it much harder for the country to pass abortion legislation. Brazil also faces the challenge of being the largest Catholic country in Latin America, with the Catholic Church fervently promoting pro-life policies.

Brazilian law

Although Brazilian law only permits abortion in cases of rape or danger to the woman’s life,  many doctors still offer abortions outside of these cricumstances. However, since President Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, lawmakers have introduced at least 30 bills that would enact even stricter abortion restrictions in the country. 

Having received the backing of evangelicals and conservatives across the country, Bolsonaro  has promised that if Congress legalized abortion, he would veto this decision. Brazil’s Health Ministry has also recently passed regulations that made it even harder to access legal abortion in the country. The measures set in place on August 27, 2020 discourage women and girls from obtaining legal abortions by requiring medical personnel to report to the police women who seek to terminate their pregnancy after rape, even against the rape survivor’s wishes. 

In response to these new regulations, Tamara Taraciuk Broner, the acting deputy Americas director at Human Rights Watch said that “instead of ensuring that rape survivors have access to legal abortion, the government is adopting policies that could discourage women and girls form seeking support and medical care after sexual violence.” 

Relations between Brazil and Argentina 

Brazil has made it clear that the country has no intention of following in its neighbor’s footsteps, with Foreign Affairs Minister Ernesto Araujo speaking out against Argentina’s decision saying that Brazil will remain “the vanguard of the right to life and in the defense of the defenseless.” However, this is not to say that Brazil may never legalize abortion. 

Brazil’s government needs to set aside politics, religion, and biases in the name of public health. There are consequences to the prohibition of abortion as it impacts disproportionately women living in poverty. Argentina won the battle because of the immense power of persuasion done through street activism. Social movements in Brazil can make a huge difference in determining whether Brazil will follow next and change the state of women’s rights in Latin America for the better. 

Edited by Dana Malapit.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image by Lara Va and obtained via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 license