Doctors in Brazil sparked debate yesterday when the Conselho Federal de Medicina (Federal Council of Medicine) published a petition endorsing the legalization of first-trimester abortions.
The council, which represents approximately 400,000 doctors throughout the country, will submit the petition to a Senate commission that is reviewing several amendments to the country’s penal code. The document was met with overwhelming approval from the council’s 27 member organizations, 80 percent of which supported it.
Abortion is currently illegal in Brazil, except in limited cases: when the pregnancy risks the mother’s life, if the fetus presents signs of severe mental disability or in cases of rape. Nevertheless, Brazilian newspaper Folho de Sao Paolo reports that according to the Brazilian Ministry of Health, approximately 1 million abortions are performed illegally each year in Brazil. In spite of the ban, a 2010 study revealed that 20 percent of Brazilian women under the age of 40 have undergone an abortion, and 55 percent of them have been hospitalized due to resulting complications. The high risk of illegal abortions prompted the Council’s petition, which called the issue of abortion “an urgent matter of public health.”
A change to the law would make Brazil the second country in Latin America to relax abortion prohibitions recently. In October 2012, Uruguay passed the region’s first decriminalization law, permitting abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape and allowing late-term abortions when a woman’s health is at risk. Brazil’s proposed change goes further, allowing first-trimester abortions even for healthy pregnancies.
President Dilma Rousseff struggled with the issue in her 2010 presidential campaign. Although she initially supported abortion decriminalization, pressure from Catholic voters prompted her to attenuate her position.
In the most populous Catholic country in the world, the petition has provoked condemnation from Brazil’s Council of Bishops. Moreover, the proposal comes just as the selection of an Argentine Pope has drawn attention to reinvigorating Catholicism in Latin America and comes on the heels of Pope Francis’ meeting with Rousseff—only his second meeting with a head of state since his inauguration.