Bill restricting Brazil abortions inspires anger, angst

Mariana Muniz
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Students protest against the President of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha in Brasilia on November 13, 2015

Students protest against the President of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha in Brasilia on November 13, 2015 (AFP Photo/Evaristo Sa)

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - It's a disturbing scene: a Brazilian rape victim arrives at the hospital seeking an abortion, but first she must prove she was raped and undergo invasive questioning.

That is the proposal contained in a bill introduced by the controversial speaker of Brazil's lower house, Eduardo Cunha, that has sparked protests by outraged women across the country.

Answering rallying cries issued on social networks, thousands of women have taken to the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Brasilia calling for the bill to be shelved and for the ouster of Cunha, an Evangelical Christian who is being investigated on corruption charges.

"The criminal is Cunha! Legal abortion now!" they chant.

Cunha's bill would require rape victims to submit proof before having an abortion, make it a crime to help or induce a woman to abort and limit the definition of sexual violence to cases in which physical or psychological harm can be proven.

Critics say the bill's vague language also threatens access to the "morning-after pill," an emergency contraceptive to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Brazil, the world's largest Catholic country by population, places tight restrictions on abortion.

It is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison, except in three cases: a brain-damaged fetus, risk of death for the mother and rape.

Rights groups estimate 850,000 women have abortions every year in Brazil -- but just 1,500 of them are legal.

- Punishing rapists or victims? -

Marcela Arruda, a 32-year-old artist who joined one march along with her mother and aunt, said Cunha's bill was a throwback to 75 years ago, when Brazil began allowing abortions for rape victims.

"It seems like we're in 1940, not 2015. We've made a lot of gains, we're not going to give up now, we're not going to just shut up and take it," she said.

Backers of the bill say it aims to strengthen rape investigations.

"We want the examination of the evidence to be mandatory to help punish the rapist. The more we carry out these exams, the better the chances of punishing the rapist, of putting him in jail," said Green Party lawmaker Evandro Gussi.

The goal, he said, is to eliminate "any doubts that a rape was committed."

Many women disagree.

"To prove that you were raped is extremely difficult. Because you get to the police station and they ask you, 'Have you been drinking? How were you dressed? Did you consent?'" said Marcela Vegah, a 26-year-old activist at a march Thursday in Rio.

The bill's real aim is to further restrict access to legal abortion, "which is already difficult," said Sinara Gumieri, a lawyer and researcher at Brazil's Institute for Bioethics, Human Rights and Gender.

Some critics call the bill a smokescreen to distract from accusations that Cunha took millions of dollars in bribes in a massive corruption scandal that has engulfed state oil company Petrobras.

The controversies come as Cunha is center stage in Brazilian politics.

As speaker, he has the power to decide whether to put to a vote a slew of pending impeachment petitions against embattled left-wing President Dilma Rousseff.

- Climate of fear -

Even when it is legal, abortion is not easy in Brazil.

Of the 68 centers authorized to perform the procedure, just 37 actually do, according to Gumieri's organization.

Many require a police report, forensic medical report or court permit.

"Victims are being treated as suspects," said Gumieri.

She said 36 percent of women who have had abortions in Brazil are girls or adolescents who have suffered sexual violence, usually in their own homes.

Critics say the bill also threatens access to the "morning-after pill."

"The bill is vague. It talks about non-abortive procedures or drugs. That's the case with the morning-after pill, an emergency contraceptive. Confusion could arise in the interpretation," said lawmaker Erika Kokay of the ruling Workers' Party, who voted against the bill in committee.

The legislation is the latest salvo from a powerful conservative caucus in Brazil's Congress that is also seeking to relax gun control laws, limit the definition of the family to heterosexual couples and restrict indigenous Brazilians' rights to their ancestral lands.