In Brazil, a far-right onslaught blocks progress on abortion rights

When left-winger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was once again elected president of Brazil in October 2022, millions of Brazilians rejoiced. Lula had served two previous terms as President, from 2003 to 2011. Through a hard-fought electoral campaign, progressive activists—notably feminists, women’s groups, as well as LGBT organizations and the movement of landless rural workers—had mobilized to help ensure Lula’s election. Despite formidable obstacles, they helped defeat the undemocratic and militaristic regime of Jair Bolsonaro, with its anti-feminist, homophobic, transphobic, gun-toting, climate-denialist policies and discourse.

Lula and supporters celebrating his election, October 2022

With Lula’s election, Brazil started coming back from a very dark place. (I wrote about those times in the January 2022 Famous Feminist Newsletter). Among other outrages, Bolsonaro’s government had used attacks on gender and abortion and presented itself as a true defender of the family to galvanize its supporters and secure its authoritarian rule.

I traveled to Brazil last month to meet activists, researchers, academics and civil servants, and get a first-hand account of what had happened in the last 18 months. How had the Lula government been faring? Was the sexual and reproductive rights situation better overall?

I wanted to know in particular whether it had been possible to improve access to abortion services. As many as 800,000 abortions are thought to be performed every year in Brazil. Of those, only about 2,000 are performed legally. Under Criminal Code provisions dating back to 1940, abortion remains highly restricted, and is only allowed (albeit without gestational limits) in cases of rape and to save the life of the woman. A 2012 Supreme Court decision also allowed it in cases of fetal anencephaly, the total or partial absence of the fetal skull. Women who undergo illegal abortions and doctors who perform them face prison sentences of up to three years and four years respectively.

Because access to safe, legal abortion remains so limited in Brazil, a significant number of pregnant persons continue to turn to unsafe methods, with sometimes deadly consequences. One of every 28 women who are admitted to public hospitals in Brazil after an unsafe abortion will die, according to recent research.

I came away worried by the persistent and growing strength of far-right political actors in the pivotal country that is Brazil. I was also inspired by the courage of the many Brazilians who fight back against authoritarianism and for democracy, justice, equality and human rights. On sexual and reproductive health and rights, activists and civil servants are doing mostly damage control at this point, with limited opportunities to move forward. But they are not giving up.

At first, relief!

But first, how did it feel to oust Bolsonaro’s far-right government? Jacqueline Pitanguy, a longtime feminist advocate with CEPIA in Rio de Janeiro, explained what a significant relief it was “to feel we could live in a democracy again, that we would not be threatened every day.” Pitanguy, like many prominent feminists, had been singled out by Bolsonaro’s government for particularly vitriolic personal attacks. “I was the object of direct attacks by the Ministry for Women, on their official social media accounts,” she said. “I was accused of supporting infanticide, and wishing for the deaths of babies. This was the terror we lived under, every day.”

Guacira Oliveira, the Executive Director of advocacy group CFEMEA based in Brasilia, described the 2019–2022 Bolsonaro period as a “very tough time.” Attacks on abortion were particularly virulent, Oliveira told me, with “the Minister of Women, [lawyer and evangelical pastor] Damares Alves, actively interfer[ing] with access to abortion. In 2020, Alves even intervened to try to stop an abortion in the case of a 10-year-old girl who had been raped, and she encouraged demonstrations by anti-abortion church groups outside the hospital in Recife [where the girl was eventually treated].”

In Brasilia at CFEMEA’s offices, with Clara Wardi, technical advisor (left) and Guacira Oliveira, executive director

But this onslaught went well beyond abortion, noted Oliveira. “Gender could not be mentioned anywhere under the Bolsonaro government, not in schools, not in policy. Teachers were denounced if they spoke about gender or sexual orientation. The Bolsonaro government encouraged the use of an official hotline, Dial 100, [set up in 1997 to report human rights violations] to denounce schools and teachers. Sexuality education [which was already not comprehensive] went out the window. Even access to contraception became more difficult. Women were shamed for asking for IUDs,” she added.

Making matters even more difficult, abortion pills, which provide a safety valve anywhere abortion is restricted or banned, are hard to access legally in Brazil. Mifepristone was never approved for sale, while misoprostol has been subjected to tighter and tighter restrictions since the late 1990s and is now only officially available in registered public hospitals.

Not surprisingly, overall maternal mortality in Brazil has increased significantly over the last few years, reaching 110 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2021 as the COVID pandemic raged. In the north and northeast of Brazil, where indigenous and Black populations are concentrated, the maternal mortality ratio stands at 140 deaths per 100,000 live births. In some states, it climbs up to 280 deaths per 100,000 live births, a level that is simply outrageous in a country with Brazil’s means and capacity. Racial and class disparities are also stark when it comes to maternal mortality caused by unsafe abortion methods. Black women are 46 percent more likely than white women to resort to unsafe abortion practices. According to data provided by research agency IBGE, in 2020, the death rate for white women as a result of unsafe abortion was 3 for every 100,000 live births, while the figure rose to 5 for Black women. For those with only primary schooling, the rate was 8.5, almost double the overall average of 4.5.

A precarious political situation

The sense of relief that followed Lula’s election was soon shaken. Bolsonaro, taking a page from Donald Trump’s playbook, had been claiming the vote was going to be rigged (if he lost, of course—not if he won!). His supporters gathered around military bases for weeks in the fall of 2022. On January 8, 2023, a week after Lula’s inauguration, thousands of Bolsonaro’s supporters stormed the capital, Brasilia, and occupied and vandalized government buildings in a (fortunately failed) coup attempt.

Earlier this year, Bolsonaro, four generals, an admiral and twenty civilians were criminally indicted for plotting this coup. Incriminating video recordings and WhatsApp messages as well as a confession by a close aide make it very likely that Bolsonaro and his allies will end up in prison. Then, in April 2024, Brazil’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the country’s armed forces have no authority to intervene in disputes between government branches, a resounding rebuke to coup plotters. In response to Bolsonaro’s delegitimization of the electoral system, Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court also declared him ineligible to run for public office until 2030. Yet Bolsonaro’s wife, Michelle, is said to be preparing to make a run for the Presidency. To say these are tumultuous times is an understatement.

Former Presidents Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, DC, in March 2019.  Criminal birds of a feather…
Credit: Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

At the same time, with Lula getting only 50.9% of the vote in the runoff, the far right emerged from the 2022 elections deeply ensconced at various levels of government. In Congress, Lula’s left-wing Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores or PT) has only 68 seats in the 513-member Chamber of Deputies (lower house) and only 8 in the 81-member Senate, forcing the PT into multi-party coalitions that don’t command a majority in either chamber.

Meanwhile, in the lower chamber, Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party has 96 deputies—the largest number for a single party. Evangelical Christians make up a strong bloc in both chambers, along with agribusiness and arms manufacturers. These groups have sufficient numbers to block executive decrees and override presidential vetoes, among the few tools Lula can wield. Moreover, the three most important states in Brazil’s federation—São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais—are headed by far-right governors.

While the influence of ultra-conservative Catholicism and of the Church itself on state institutions remains substantial, Evangelical Christianity’s influence continues to expand. Today, one in three Brazilians identifies as evangelical, with churches present in many grassroots communities. Both these religious currents are staunchly anti-feminist, anti-gender and anti-abortion. The populist far right known as Bolsonarismo is now an integral part of Brazilian politics, not a fringe movement, with opposition to gender and abortion a key strategy for rallying their base.

Another concern is the re-politicization of the military, which Sonia Corrêa, a Rio-based researcher at Sexuality Policy Watch, described as a key factor in Bolsonaro’s initial rise to power in 2018. Brazil suffered under a brutal military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, so I would have expected very little appetite for a return to those times. Not so. Bolsonaro was a captain in the army, and several of his government ministers were actual army officers. The prospect of a military coup is not theoretical, especially after January 8, 2023. “The military occupied key positions during the Bolsonaro administration. After the coup attempt, tensions remain high and will not ease anytime soon. This is another complicated front that Lula has to manage,” warned Corrêa.

Hopeful steps forward on reproductive rights

Still, controlling the presidency and executive branch of the national government is a significant opportunity to drive change, and feminists put forward their demands. Things started strong on the international front. Brazil quickly withdrew from the infamous Geneva Consensus against abortion, introduced by the Trump Administration in 2020 and signed at its highest point by 32 countries (the Biden Administration pulled out in 2021). Then, in November 2023, in Santiago de Chile, Brazil came out in full support of the Montevideo Consensus, the bold 2013 Latin American and Caribbean political agreement on sexual and reproductive rights. Pitanguy, who was on the Brazilian government delegation at that meeting, described the moment as “Brazil coming back. It was a very moving moment. I was so proud. Brazil was applauded by other countries several times during its speech, which is unusual as you know.”

On the domestic front, activists pushed for swift action to reverse the attacks on legal abortion care. By 2023, only 200, or 3.6%, of the more than 5,500 Brazilian municipalities provided legal abortions in their healthcare services, leaving 37.5 million Brazilian women without even the minimal access to abortion allowed by law available locally. Activists hoped that, at least in those cases, access to public, free-of-charge services could once again become adequate. At the same time, they continued to advocate for the full decriminalization of abortion in the first 12 weeks of gestation, relying on a case (ADPF 442) that was filed in Brazil’s Supreme Court in 2017 by the Socialism and Liberty Party (Partido Socialismo e Libertade, or PSOL), with the support of reproductive rights group Anis.

And there was change, even if it wasn't all that was hoped for. Early in 2023, Lula’s Ministry of Health revoked six Bolsonaro-era decrees that had made access to legal abortion services more difficult. One of these decrees had required medical teams to notify the police when they performed an abortion in a case of a rape (!), while another had limited legal abortions to 21 weeks 6 days of gestation, in violation of the Criminal Code. Bolsonaro-era technical standards on abortion—which described any abortion as a crime—were also quietly removed from the Ministry of Health website (although not formally repealed).

“And we can talk about gender again in schools, thankfully! Teachers are still being filmed or recorded [by right-wingers] in schools, but the state isn’t behind it anymore. That’s a big difference,” said Oliveira.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Health prepared new technical standards on abortion to once again provide evidence-based guidance, particularly for abortions after 22 weeks of gestation. But they were leaked in March 2024, before ministerial approval, causing a right-wing unleashing of “fake news” that the Ministry of Health supported the killing of babies at birth. (This sounds familiar to my U.S. readers, I’m sure!) This resulted in the “withdrawal”—even though they hadn’t been formally issued—of these new technical standards, and in the sacking of a high-level civil servant.

A health official who spoke to me on condition of anonymity explained the urgent necessity for new, comprehensive abortion guidance for health providers: “For example, at the moment, we have no guidance at all on what ‘risk to the life of the woman’ means. So it’s been badly interpreted as ‘risk of imminent death.’ This is dangerous. We need a better understanding of what risk to life is all about. What is it for Black women, women over 40, or those who have high blood pressure during pregnancy?”

The health official also pointed out the close to 12,000 girls aged 8–14 (74% of whom are Black) who delivered babies in Brazil in 2023, an absolutely astonishing figure. These pregnancies are, under the law, the result of rape, so these girls should be guaranteed an abortion. “But it doesn’t work like that in reality,” they noted. “There is a high rate of maternal deaths among those girls, and neo-natal mortality is also high.” It is unclear at this time whether the Ministry’s new technical standards can be revived. Scary times.

In September 2023, in a bold move, the outgoing presiding judge of the Supreme Court of Brazil, Rosa Weber, cast a first favorable vote in ADPF 442, opening up the possibility that some of the ten other judges could follow suit and decriminalize abortion in the first 12 weeks. But those hopes were dashed when Weber’s successor, Roberto Barroso, announced he was putting voting on the case on hold. Barroso, who is openly supportive of abortion rights, said in a November 2023 interview that he felt public opinion on the matter was “not strong,” and the debate on this issue “not mature.” A negative vote by the Court would of course be disastrous, so the presiding judge has chosen to wait. “We know Barroso is favorable, but still, this means the issue is falling down the list of priorities,” noted Angela Freitas of the campaign Nem Presa Nem Morta (Neither Arrested Nor Dead) for the decriminalization of abortion.

Health providers at the center of the struggle

After Weber’s vote, right-wing attacks against abortion, which never wavered, further intensified. Health services and providers have borne the brunt. “The attacks have accelerated, and they are coordinated by the various actors,” said Marina Rongo, an advisor at human rights group Conectas, based in São Paulo. “Health services are constantly being targeted at the municipal level. Staff are denounced and accused. This creates a lot of insecurity for doctors. They can lose their licenses, and some have been suspended.”

In December 2023, the Vila Nova Cachoeirinha hospital in São Paulo suspended services in the only clinic that provided legal abortions in that city of 12 million people. The hospital claimed it had been tipped off to “illegal abortions” taking place at Cachoeirinha; it then proceeded to hand over confidential patient data to the Health Secretary for São Paulo state, in violation of the law. You won’t be surprised to know that, upon investigation, nothing illegal was found. But the abortion services remain closed.

In April 2024, two São Paulo abortion providers had their licenses suspended by the Regional Council on Medicine for São Paulo State (Conselho Regional de Medicina do Estado de São Paulo or CREMESP), under the grotesque accusation they had “tortured a fetus.” Feminist campaigners have been protesting these actions outside of the hospital, as well as in front of the CREMESP.

Activists in front of the Regional Council for Medicine, CREMESP, in São Paulo, to protest the politically-motivated suspension of two abortion providers. They presented the CREMESP with a funeral wreath to commemorate the deaths of women and girls caused by the council’s actions to block safe and legal abortion. May 16, 2024

In March 2024, the Federal Council on Medicine (Conselho Federal de Medicina or CFM), the professional association in charge of regulating medical professionals in Brazil, joined in on the attacks. The CFM issued its own resolution (2378/2024) to forbid doctors from performing abortions after 22 weeks of gestation. The resolution did so by banning the only abortion procedure used in Brazil at this stage of pregnancy, a technique known as “fetal asystole.” The National Conference of [Catholic] Bishops of Brazil immediately congratulated the CFM, describing its resolution as a step toward the total prohibition of abortion in Brazil.

Fetal asystole (inducing cardiac arrest by injection) is a procedure recognized by the World Health Organization for abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. Why would doctors ban an evidence-based medical procedure they might need to use in their practice, I wondered? “The CFM has been very conservative since forever. Many doctors have been hostile to the SUS, our national, public health system [established in 1990], I would say for corporate reasons,” explained Freitas. “But since Bolsonaro, the CFM has become completely dominated by the extreme right. And there are many doctors in elected office who campaign against abortion.” Indeed, physician Raphael Câmara Medeiros Parente, a fervent proponent of sexual abstinence for teen pregnancy prevention who was Bolsonaro’s Secretary of Primary Health Care, is now at the CFM, where he shepherded the CFM anti-abortion resolution.

Angela Freitas, coordinator of the Nem Presa Nem Morta campaign to decriminalize abortion

The CFM isn’t only aligned with the far right’s views on abortion. Rongo pointed out the CFM’s shockingly unscientific positions during the pandemic, which provided support to Bolsonaro’s catastrophic mismanagement of COVID: “They defended the use of chloroquine against COVID that Bolsonaro supported, claiming that doctors should have ‘autonomy’ in prescribing treatments!”

On May 17, 2024, Supreme Court judge Alexandre de Moraes issued an injunction to suspend the CFM resolution on the basis that it went beyond the Criminal Code, which provides no limits on gestational age or specific procedures. “Right now, the right-wing sees the Supreme Court as an obstacle,” said Freitas. “Judges on the Court are, as a result, under pressure like never before. There is a lot of tension between Congress and the Court. Of all government buildings, the Court was the most vandalized during the January 8 coup attempt. That was not an accident,” she added. Corrêa concurred: “The Senate is now openly threatening the Court’s independence. Moraes is their bogeyman.” Moraes, who also presides the Supreme Electoral Tribunal that disqualified Bolsonaro, is currently facing serious death threats.

Sonia Corrêa, researcher and co-chair of Sexuality Policy Watch, based in Rio de Janeiro

Congress increases the attacks

In response to Moraes’ injunction against the CFM, far-right deputies are currently pushing an “emergency” bill (PL 1904/2024) through Congress to criminalize all abortions after 22 weeks. Nem Presa Nem Morta and other groups have mounted a vigorous campaign against it (“A child is not a mother!”), pointing its potential deadly effect on young girls, who often don’t realize they are pregnant until later, or don’t know where to turn for help.

But Congress’ most recent onslaught really began in the fall of 2023. “Our right-wing Congress reacted violently to Weber’s vote [on the decriminalization of abortion],” said Oliveira. They soon passed a budget amendment to ban the use of public resources to “promote, incentivize or fund… the carrying out of abortion except in cases authorized by law,” a provision that seemed redundant since public funds already can’t be used for anything illegal. It nevertheless served to send a clear signal of “ideological control,” says Corrêa. President Lula vetoed it, but Congress overturned his veto on May 28, 2024, in what deputy Eduardo Bolsonaro, Jair’s son, celebrated on X as “Lula getting massacred in the Chamber.” Incidentally, the same budget amendment also targeted, among other far-right bugaboos, “actions aimed at deconstructing, diminishing or extinguishing the concept of the traditional family, composed of a father, mother and their children” (!) and “actions aimed at influencing children and adolescents, from daycare to high school, to choose sexual options different from their biological sex.”

The paradox of left-wing government

The lackluster electoral results of the PT—and of the left overall—in Congress and at state level have clearly left Lula’s government with very limited leeway. Another underlying and longstanding factor, however, is the traditional reluctance of old-style left-wing parties to tackle issues related to gender, reproductive rights and sexuality: “In some sectors of the PT, these issues are still described as ‘bourgeois decadence’ or the ‘moral agenda’,” explained Corrêa. “Their focus is the economy and poverty. When it comes to gender, they just don’t see the relevance.”

“As a result, we are in a highly paradoxical and contradictory situation right now!” exclaimed Corrêa. “Feminists are fighting far-right forces for whom attacking gender and abortion are central issues, while trying to work with left-wingers and liberals who don’t see defending these issues as central,” she added. This lack of understanding and concern might explain Lula’s recent appointment of two Supreme Court justices, Cristiano Zanin and Flavio Dino, who are not supportive of reproductive rights.

Fighting poverty remains a critical issue in Brazil, where 1% of the population owns nearly a third of the country’s income, making it one of the most socially unequal countries in the world. Lula’s government has re-launched the Bolsa Familia, the family welfare payments that had lifted the income of poor families during his two previous terms. “Lula’s main agenda is to combat poverty and social inequality. It has always been,” said Pitanguy, “and of course, poverty affects women and children very directly. We have a large proportion of the population living in extreme poverty. But it’s not enough. Reproductive rights are critical too.”

“Abortion was never a banner issue for the previous Lula governments,” noted Clara Wardi, an advisor at CFEMEA, “but it was on the agenda as a matter of public health. Policies were in place, training happened, and research was being conducted. This time, during the campaign, we could see the PT retreating. Lula began by talking about abortion in terms of public health, but by the end of the campaign, he made it clear he wasn’t going to deal with it.”

“There is now real fear in the government and in the PT to deal with this issue,” added Oliveira. “There was more room in the past. This is the worst we’ve ever seen it.” Corrêa surmised that, given the far-right’s virulent opposition to abortion, the PT chose to focus on other issues where a dialogue with religious conservatives is possible. The PT’s historical links to the Brazilian Council of Catholic Bishops and Lula’s own personal connection to the Vatican probably also contributed to this posture.

These dynamics no doubt explain the comments made by Cida Gonçalves, Lula’s Minister for Women, in an March 2024 interview to Folha de São Paulo, a major newspaper, while she was in New York to represent Brazil at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Gonçalves has long worked to fight violence against women and is considered a feminist, yet the interview quickly went sideways. When asked about the status of abortion in Brazil and what could be done to improve matters, Gonçalves redirected the conversation to contraception, replied that “today, to speak about abortion just for abortion’s sake, is irresponsible” and that she did not want to reduce women to that single issue. When pressed by the Folha journalist, the Minister even threatened to end the interview.

Freitas and other campaigners have since met with Gonçalves to persuade her to stand stronger, and in recent interviews, Gonçalves has been less shy about abortion. She also made a commitment to overhaul the National Women’s Rights Council that was packed with right-wing women hostile to gender equality during Bolsonaro’s term, and has been meeting with women’s groups across Brazil. The National Commission on Population and Development, which Bolsonaro gutted, has also been revived to provide briefings to the government on issues of sexual and reproductive health. Pitanguy is one of its members.

Feminist activists are not giving up

In this difficult context, where constant vigilance is required to block the far-right and bolster the left, civil society organizations are using all the strategies available to them. Litigation has proven a key tool to try to advance rights and to stop violations. In addition to the ADPF 442 Supreme Court case to decriminalize abortion mentioned above, other active cases include ADPF 989 to affirm and protect legal abortion services and ADPF 1141 to challenge the legality of the CFM’s anti-abortion resolution.

Nem Presa Nem Morta and other campaigners are also focusing on social decriminalization of abortion, with communications targeting the public at large, online influencers, and grassroots communities such as favelas (informal urban settlements) and kilombos (Black communities originally established by rebel slaves). During Madonna’s May 6 concert on Copacabana beach in Rio, they hired a plane to fly over the 1.6 million people on the beach with a green banner that read: “Madonna, legal abortion is under attack in Brazil.”

Nem Presa Nem Morta’s banner over Copacabana beach before Madonna’s huge free concert on May 6. It reads: “Madonna, legal abortion is under attack in Brazil!” The singer was photographed by paparazzi, leaving to many clever memes, like “Madonna sees what the Council on Medicine is doing to legal abortion in Brazil”

CFEMEA, Nem Presa and other groups continue to exert pressure on the executive branch, and to meet regularly in Congress with allies and potential allies to lobby and support them. “We meet with persuadables and provide them with information,” explained Freitas. “We also defend them when they come under attack. But we can’t get meaningful legislation through. The atmosphere in Congress is very heavy, with fist fights almost erupting, so that’s the best we can do at the moment.” Oliveira had a similar assessment of the possibilities for real legislative advances in the current Congress: “A few laws have been put forward and passed, but they are weak. Like the law on equal salaries, which has no mechanism for enforcement, or the ‘No is No’ law on consent and sexual harassment, which—incredibly—exempts churches from its application.”

Brazilian non-governmental organizations are also engaging more systematically with the international human rights system. Conectas, in partnership with other groups, provided input into the review of Brazil’s record on gender equality by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which took place in Geneva in late May 2024. “We feel advocacy at international level on reproductive rights is important at this time. CEDAW experts can ask the Brazilian government some of the tough questions,” said Rongo.

My interviewees were not optimistic about the upcoming (October) municipal elections, which could reinforce the ultra-right dominance in local politics. Pitanguy described the right-wing as “very united” and with significantly greater financial resources than feminist and other progressive movements. “They’ve been very successful at creating easily understood categories of accusation, which they use to create fear in common people. Feminists will destroy the family, ‘gender ideology’ in schools will turn boys into girls and girls into boys, and communism and Marxism will confiscate your property. We are not well equipped to fight that.” Churches’ vast networks and influence on the ground are especially difficult to counter. “It’s expensive to do local work in a very large country like Brazil, and the churches are everywhere,” added Wardi.

“Despite all this, we have never had wider support for abortion in the mainstream press than we do now,” said Corrêa. “The courts are helpful. And opinion polls are clear that, at the very least, women shouldn’t be incarcerated for abortion.” A recent Datafolha survey showed the percentage of Brazilians who thought abortion should be completely banned has fallen from 41% in 2018 to 32% today. A December 2023 poll by Quaest found 84% of those polled were against incarcerating women who abort. “Bolsonarismo’s aggressiveness on this issue has changed minds,” said Corrêa.

Oliveira is also cautiously optimistic about the increased cohesion among progressives, notably between feminists, Black women and LGBT communities. “We’ve been building these links for a long time, and it’s coming together,” she concluded. But the historically close connections between some feminists and the PT mean that it’s not been easy for certain segments of the movement to criticize or put pressure on Lula’s government.

“You see, Brazil is not for beginners,” Freitas told me with a wistful smile as we said goodbye. It is most definitely not.

In solidarity with the brave and tenacious feminists of Brazil. A luta continua!