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Reproductive rights in Brazil from Beijing to present day: are we going forward or backward?

o corpo e nosso, it's our body
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o corpo e nosso, it's our body

Translated by Fal Azevedo

In the last National Conference on Policies for Women, which took place on December 2011, Brazil reaffirmed the commitment it had made in 1995, in Beijing, to reassess its punitive legislation on abortion, so as to ensure rights, life and health to women. In spite of that, the current scenario shows us that the commitment still has not advanced beyond words. In an interview to the Heinrich Boll Foundation, Guacira de Oliveira draws a picture of the current fight to ensure reproductive and sexual rights to women in Brazil.

Guacira de Oliveira is a member of the Managing Board of CFEMEA - Feminist Center for Studies and Counseling, an organization that fights for the strengthening of democracy and women’s rights in Brazil. During the IV World Conference on Women, in 1995, in Beijing, she was part of the Brazilian civil society delegation, presenting the country women’s movements demands.

HBS: What were the most important issues discussed in the Conference?

Guacira: There was an entire universe of demands in the Brazilian women’s movements agenda. Brazil had only recently started living in a democracy; the new Constitution had been established in 1988, and the World Conference on Women happened in 1995. This meant we had to discuss everything: political participation, work division by gender, issues like racism, violence against women, female reproductive and sexual rights, and all the civil rights. There was an intense mobilization, and Brazil had the largest civil society women delegation in Beijing.

HBS: In Brazilian Congress – the most conservative the country has had since its re-democratization – there are tens of bills that either try to take back rights already conquered by women or propose anti-democratic and ultraconservative laws. Besides, we have been observing a raise in punitive practices toward women who have abortions and in the closing of clandestine clinics (abortion is a crime in Brazil, except in very strict cases) in the wake of heavily publicized deaths of women due to post-op complications. How can that be analyzed?

Guacira: During the last National Conference of Policies for Women it became clear that all the previous conferences that took place in states and cities had decided, by majority, to demand the reaffirmation of the commitment to change the punitive legislation concerning abortion, as recommended by the 1995 World Conference. Even though that has theoretically been approved at the Conference of Policies for Women, it is incorporated neither in public health policies nor in the National Plan of Policies for Women itself. These days, what we see more often in Brazilian Congress is a huge number of bills that aim at criminalizing abortion even further and attempt to take legislation to new lows, which have never existed in the country. There is a backlash. This fundamentalist, conservative wave has succeeded in hampering the debate in a threatening way.

HBS: The latest attempt at taking the legalization of abortion to be discussed in Congress is bill No. 882/2015, by Representative Jean Wyllys (PSOL), that CFEMEA helped drafting. In face of this conservative profile that has taken over the House, some social movements consider it premature to try passing it now. Do you believe the bill has a chance of being actually discussed?

Guacira: The way I see it, we are now in resistance mode. Any strategy we might build now is, given the size of the current conservative attack, a political resistance strategy. In that sense, Jean [Wyllys]’s bill, that we see as an advance, has many difficulties in finding channels through which it can proceed and be debated. There is not really space enough to even begin the discussion.

HBS: The Ministry of Health states that between 1990 and 2013, the number of women’s deaths due to abortion has gone from 3rd to 5th place in maternal mortality causes. Still, Brazil has failed to reach its goal of bringing this number down by 75%, and it is the 4th slowest country in the world in reducing that rate, according to the PMNCH (Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health) 2014 report, launched on it's third Forum held in 2014 in Johannesburg, South Africa. How do you think Dilma Administration is doing in that respect?

Guacira: I think Dilma administration has had a very timid stance on the issue. Dealing with the abortion issue is absolutely essential in order to properly address the maternal mortality rates problem in Brazil. There was a step back in that regard when the president decided to implement a program directed to maternal and children health, instead of sexual and reproductive rights and health care. Brazilian government managed to make very important changes in the country, changes that have shifted its place in the international arena, but this so very basic issue, female mortality causes, has not been modified, due solely to an absolute lack of commitment and to the government’s failure to prioritize the problem.

HBS: New reproductive technologies used by the pharmaceutical industry have raised some ethical questions, which also alight with patriarchal values. In this regard, the company Facebook is offering egg-freezing services for late pregnancy attempts as a benefit to their employees. Can new technologies and therapeutic procedures be seen as workers’ civil/women’s rights?

Guacira: They might be either a right or a business. Regulating their use in order to turn them into a right is a key issue. The pharmaceutical industry’s pull in Brazilian Congress is quite impressive. And since elections in Brazil are dominated by economic power, this lack of regulation is very threatening to women’s rights. Alternatively, a regulation, or even a deregulation, can be created to support businesses operating in this segment. Besides, Brazilian Constitution forbids companies to develop any coercive services or practices directed toward family planning. Way back in the 1980s, there was a wave of coercion for contraception, which wound up being prohibited. Now, with the quick advance of assisted human reproductive technologies, the coercion – and not  respect for women’s reproductive rights – happens like this, with the freezing of female employees’ eggs. Usually, this kind of offer stems from an anti-rights perspective.