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Abortion persecution in Brazil

Many thanks to Beatriz Galli for translating the following introduction to an Ipas Brazil report she co-authored with Carmen Campos (another of our graduates), Jael Humphrey, Maria Elvira Vieira de Mello, Samantha Buglione and Margareth Arilha.

Denial of Women's Reproductive Rights in Mato Grosso do Sul

On April 13, 2007, police in the central-western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul raided a health clinic and confiscated the medical records of nearly ten thousand women. The raid followed a report widely featured in the media, that accused the clinic of providing abortion services. Nationwide, abortion is only permitted in cases of rape or where there is no other means to save the life of the pregnant woman. Article 124 of the Brazilian Penal Code of 1940 penalizes those who undergo an abortion or consent to an abortion being performed on a third party with one to three years imprisonment. Article 125 authorizes three to ten years imprisonment for those who perform an abortion on a woman without her consent; Article 126 authorizes one to four years imprisonment to any person who performs an abortion where the woman consents to the abortion. Article 127 allows the penalties to be augmented in the case of injury to or death of the woman undergoing the abortion.

The police investigation in Mato Grosso do Sul following the clinic raid was marked by procedural irregularities that violated both Brazilian law and international human rights standards. The records were seized from the clinic, violating women’s rights to privacy and due process of law. The police failed to observe procedural safeguards to protect the privacy of the medical files. Brazilian law provides a specific procedure for investigating patients’ medical records, requiring judicial authorities to appoint an expert to handle medical files, to preserve their secrecy. Ignoring that procedure, the police unlawfully seized and used the medical records to criminally investigate women suspected of obtaining illegal abortions.

These events affect thousands of women who are currently under investigation. As an alternative to a trial before a jury, most of the women have accepted alternative punishments; some of those sentenced are required to work with young children, providing community service in daycare centers and schools. The judge working on these cases called these “pedagogical penalties to enable these women to think about what they have done and regret it.” Women who have not yet been prosecuted live in fear that they will be criminally investigated and that their private medical histories may be revealed to their families, co-workers, or the public at large. The police currently plan to investigate approximately two thousand women whose cases, they believe, fall within the statute of limitations.

The case of Mato Grosso do Sul is not an isolated incident. It reveals a pattern of violations to women’s reproductive and human rights that is spreading throughout the country. This year alone, clinics in the states of Maranhão, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais, Goiás, Bahia, Pernambuco, Paraná, Ceará and Sergipe have been targeted. For example, in June, 2008, in the city of Limeira, in the state of São Paulo, police raided a clinic where abortions were allegedly performed, seizing 200 medical files. The police arrested the doctors and a patient they found inside the clinic, and they plan to investigate the records and prosecute former patients.

These events represent a move backwards, a backlash against gains in reproductive rights, and a threat to human rights in Brazil. Research conducted by Ipas Brazil and Advocaci found that in the period between 1998 and 2004, 11 women had been accused of abortion and criminally prosecuted in Rio de Janeiro State, but not one woman was convicted of the crime.

Appalled by the manner in which Mato Grosso do Sul authorities continue to violate Brazilian Constitutional protections and international human rights, a Brazilian civil society group composed of NGOs – Ipas Brazil, Citizenship and Reproduction Commission (CCR), THEMIS Pesquisa e Assessoria, Antigona Institute, and The Latin American and Caribbean and Latin American Committee for the Defense of Women's Rights (CLADEM) – combined their efforts to collect accurate information on the case in order to expose these violations to national authorities and the international community. The information in this report was obtained from field visits to Campo Grande, where interviews were conducted with key actors involved in the case, from official documents, and from the press.

The full report is online in Portuguese:
Processos judiciais envolvendo abortamento:
Negação dos direitos reprodutivos das mulheres em Mato Grosso do Sul