The Fight to Decriminalize Abortion in Brazil

August 7, 2018

Debora Diniz is widely known in her homeland of Brazil as an activist, anthropologist, writer, filmmaker, law professor, and a co-founder of ANIS: Institute of Bioethics, an organization dedicated to bioethics and human rights in Latin America. In addition to her impressive career as a professor and lawyer, Diniz has worked on Brazilian Supreme Court cases involving abortion, marriage equality, the secular state, and stem cell research. Recently, she has found herself once again on the frontlines of advocacy as she gears up to face another Supreme Court hearing, this time regarding the strict abortion laws in Brazil.

The fight to achieve softer abortion laws in Latin America is a complicated matter, as ideology, religion, and conservative governments clash with pro-choice advocates. However, we have seen some countries in the region, like Argentina, feverishly rally around abortion laws and women’s rights in the past couple of years. As the law stands in Brazil, abortion is prohibited unless in the case of rape or if the mother’s life is at risk. Females who terminate pregnancies under any other conditions could serve up to three years in prison. While there has been an increase in support for decriminalization of abortion among the population over the years, the Congress remains extremely conservative on the issue and prevents the passage of pro-choice legislation. The current petition regarding decriminalization of abortion that Diniz is rallying behind came after an attempt by the Brazilian government to instill a complete abortion ban-- including cases of rape or life-threatening pregnancy complications. Nonetheless, the mobilization efforts from advocates and leftist politicians to achieve some reform on the polarizing issue has began to gain momentum. In March 2017, the Socialism and Liberty Party and ANIS filed a petition to the Supreme Court to allow abortion to become legalized up to 12 weeks. Yesterday, August 3rd marked the commencement of the Supreme Court hearing about abortion decriminalization.

If the case passes the Supreme Court (although not likely) it would be a huge step forward in women’s health and safety in Latin America. The New York Times reports that an estimated 500,000 to 1.2 million illegal abortions are performed in Brazil each year as a country of roughly 211 million people. Additionally, more than 250,000 females are hospitalized from health issues related to clandestine abortions which reportedly has costed the government $130 million over the last ten years. Furthermore, strict abortion laws disproportionately affects poorer women in a country plagued by rampant poverty and lack of resources. The majority of women who are put in serious, near-fatal, or fatal incidents regarding clandestine abortions come from favelas or poor communities. Often if a wealthy women seeks an abortion she will travel to a country where it is legal or less strict or she will gain access to safer procedures (although still illegal).

Diniz has been extremely involved in the advocacy for women’s rights but at a dangerous cost. After it became known she was gearing up to advocate in the hearing, she started to receive alarmings amounts of deaths threats from people opposed to her pro-choice agenda. In July, Diniz went into undercover protective services for her safety. Despite the setbacks and tribulations associated with the hearing, Diniz remains hopeful that the hearing will spark debate about the deep-rooted issue ahead of a fierce presidential election in October. The hearing marks an important shift in Latin America as we see two South American giants-- Argentina and Brazil-- openly discuss important issues about women’s rights to a legal and safe abortion.


  1. Andreoni, Manuela, and Ernesto Londoño. (2018 Aug 3). "Brazil’s Supreme Court Considers Decriminalizing Abortion.". The New York Times. Retrieved Saturday, August 4, 2018.
  2. n.a.. (2018 Aug 4). "Brazil Population 2018". Retrieved Saturday, August 4, 2018.
  3. n.a.. (2017 Dec 12). "Brazil: Reject Abortion Ban". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved Saturday, August 4, 2018.
  4. n.a.. (2018 Aug 3). "Brazil: Reproductive Rights Activist Threatened". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved Saturday, August 4, 2018.
  5. Phillips, Dom. (2018 Aug 2). "Professor forced into hiding by death threats over Brazil abortion hearing". The Guardian. Retrieved Saturday, August 4, 2018.

About Author(s)

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Alexis Takoushian
Alexis Takoushian is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science and Spanish Language with a Certificate in Latin American Studies. Last spring she completed the semester-long Brackenridge Fellowship through Pitt’s University Honors College in which she researched foreign intervention in the Venezuelan crisis. During summer 2018, she conducted research surrounding political attitudes of university students in Valladolid, Mexico through Pitt’s Center for Latin American Studies. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a degree within the field of international law.