Reproductive rights are being left behind in Latin America’s leftist political shift, but Brazil is one exception. The health minister has proposed a national vote on abortion and one city plans to give out emergency contraception during Carnival.

Carnival on Jan. 22.

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (WOMENSENEWS)–A government plan to dispense emergency contraception in the city of Recife, where Carnival festivities starting today are expected to be especially vibrant, has stirred the censure of Catholic authorities.

Recife’s archbishop, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, warned the faithful that those who use emergency contraception faced excommunication and vowed to seek action in the courts to block it.

The pills, which prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse, are being distributed at public clinics in Recife throughout the four days of frenzied partying. They are a part of the government’s contraceptive plan that includes giving out 19.5 million condoms during Carnival, which ushers in the abstemious season of Lent on the Christian calendar.

The government has been distributing condoms during Carnival for the past few years as part of a national anti-AIDS education campaign, whose slogan is "good in bed means wearing a condom."

The condom campaign and the public distribution of emergency contraception in Recife represent the latest attempts by the Brazilian government to remove issues of reproductive health from the inner folds of Catholic doctrine, setting itself apart from many other nations in the region.

The biggest sign of this came less than a year ago, when President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who took office in 2002, appointed a progressive health minister, Jose Temporao. Swift Call for Public Debate

Within days of taking office Temporao called for abortion to be discussed as a matter of public health and women’s reproductive rights.

"Unfortunately, women haven’t been heard on this discussion," Temporao said in an e-mail interview with Women’s eNews. "They are the most interested party. There are 700 hospitalizations per day due to problems relating to abortion . . . I wonder: If men got pregnant, would this issue be resolved by now?"

In November, the government began distributing emergency contraception pills in Sao Paolo metro stations. The move followed a government price cut of 90 percent for birth control at pharmacies in May 2007 and its more than doubling the number of free contraceptives it distributes through state clinics.

Brazilian law prohibits abortions except in the case of rape or risk to the woman’s health. The London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation reported that more than 1 million illegal abortions were performed in Brazil during 2005, contributing to the country’s high maternal death rates.

Temporao has spoken out against social pressure to limit public discussion of abortion and blames the country’s abortion law for 15 percent of Brazil’s maternal deaths.

Temporao has also advocated that a public referendum be held on the issue and that more women be brought into the debate. The Roman Catholic Church has already challenged his statements, criticizing what it sees as a national vote against life. Change Welcomed by Activists

Marlise Matos, head of the political science department at the Federal University of the State of Minas Gerais, welcomes Temporaro’s endorsement of a renewed debate.

"This is an important moment to restore the discussion," says Matos, who is also the national coordinator of the Brazilian Net of Feminist Research and Studies, a gender and feminism research group based at the university that involves 40 research centers around the nation.

Temporao notwithstanding, anti-choice views remain entrenched in the world’s largest Catholic nation, where 73 percent of its 190 million people follow the faith and the church remains influential. Brazilians march for abortion rights

An April 2007 poll in daily newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo found that 65 percent of 5,700 respondents opposed altering the existing law; 16 percent favored wider access.

But some pro-choice advocates were nonetheless encouraged by press reports last April that cited the fact that da Silva, in a closed-door meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, pointed out that Brazil is a secular state.

Monica Maia, a member of the Porto Alegre-based Feminist Net of Health, a reproductive rights group composed of individuals and almost 300 institutions, said that while da Silva was only pointing out a fact, it was an important reminder at a time when religious groups, particularly Catholics, were trying to turn the state into "an arm of religion." During his visit the pope lobbied for a constitutional measure making it harder to change the law on abortion. Stiff Political Resistance

An early attempt by the da Silva government to restore the discussion of legalized abortion met stiff resistance in Congress. However, a government-appointed 18-member commission in 2005 recommended that abortion be legal up to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Esther Hewlett

In reaction to the commission, the Parliamentary Front in Defense of Life formed with over 200 house representatives and senators as members. The coalition held a national seminar to plan counter-action to the call for legalized abortion, including how to fund protests and marches against decriminalization.

The Brazilian Congress is comprised of nearly 600 representatives from 21 political parties, and ideological lines are in a constant state of flux. Given the Catholic Church’s ability to galvanize political support for or against candidates, its influence is likely to increase and maintain the potency of the Parliamentary Front.

More recently, in August 2007, the Special Secretariat of Policies for Women, headed by Minister Nilceia Freire, made a priority recommendation that a new abortion bill should be introduced to Congress but no date for doing so was scheduled.

That same month, da Silva’s decision to appoint a conservative judge, Carlos Alberto Direito, to the federal Supreme Court brought some media criticism and was widely recognized as a compromise for him to generate political support from the party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement, which includes many government opponents.

The court is currently controlled by liberal judges who have increasingly issued preliminary injunctions to allow abortions in cases of fetal anomalies.

Tereza Perazza is a Women’s eNews correspondent based on the city of Belo Horizonte in Brazil.

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For more information:

"Brazil Begins Talking Openly About Abortion":

Bem-Estar Familiar No Brasil (in Portuguese):

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