Rio De Janeiro – Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed a law guaranteeing treatment – including emergency contraception – for rape victims in public hospitals, in spite of strong opposition from religious conservatives who believe it will lead to the decriminalisation of abortion.
“In future when a victim of abuse goes to a hospital, the staff must follow the protocol,” said Health Minister Alexandre Padilha, announcing the president’s ratification of the law Thursday, which will enter into force in 90 days.
The new Law 3/2013 only introduces regulations for authorised procedures for multi-disciplinary care in the public health system for female victims of sexual violence, without actually modifying the country’s law on abortion.
In Brazil, abortion is only legal in exceptional cases: when the mother’s life is at risk; when the foetus has been confirmed by three doctors to be anencephalic (lacking a large part of its brain and skull); or when the pregnancy is the result of rape.
“The novelty is that the law establishes compulsory care in the health services for all cases of sexual violence,” said Beatriz Galli of the Brazilian chapter of Ipas, an international NGO that works for women’s health and reproductive rights, including safe abortions.
“At present, we know that some referral services for the care of victims of sexual violence are not working properly, especially when it comes to guaranteeing access to abortions in cases of sexual violence provided for by law,” she told IPS.
Galli said moral or religious objections by health professionals to practicing abortions were common.
She said there was even resistance in state public prosecutors’ offices, which sometimes request the seizure of records to make sure that the abortions carried out were within the limits of the law.
But the new federal law “will guarantee that health professionals can do their job with the requisite legal backing, putting an end to attempts to backslide on the reproductive rights of women, teenagers and girls who are victims of sexual violence,” Galli said.
Sociologist Angela Freitas of the Provincial Council on Women’s Rights, meanwhile, responded to conservative critics by saying that the law’s goal was not to legalise abortion but to guarantee the rights of women who suffered sexual violence, many of whom were teenagers.
“What bothers critics is that Brazil has begun to create public health services to provide care in cases of legal abortion, which is a victory for women’s movements,” Freitas, who also represents the Articulaçao de Mulheres Brasileiras (AMB – Brazilian Women’s Network) in the organisation’s Rio de Janeiro regional office, told IPS.
“Violence against women, especially sexual abuse, is on the rise, and this bill is important for guaranteeing victims access to healthcare and medical attention. People who are pro-life ought to support it,” said Galli, who added that one million illegal abortions a year are carried out in Brazil, often in conditions that put the mothers’ lives at risk.
Thursday was the constitutional deadline for ratifying law 3/2013, which was based on a bill presented in 1999 by Iara Bernardi, who at the time was a congresswoman for Sao Paulo from Rousseff’s left-wing Workers’ Party (PT).
But doubts had arisen as to whether it would be signed into law, due to rising pressure surrounding Pope Francis’ 22-28 visit to Brazil, even though the bill had been unanimously approved in both chambers of Congress.
Three days before the pope’s arrival, representatives of the Brazilian Catholic bishops’ conference and other religious bodies visited Rousseff at the government palace to ask her to partially veto the law.
They were lobbying for the removal of an article referring to “pregnancy prevention” and another requiring “victims to be informed of their legal rights and all the health services available to them” – that is, the right to abort, or to take emergency contraception pills, in cases of rape.
Emergency contraception, also called the “morning-after pill”, delays ovulation or prevents implantation of a fertilised egg up to 72 hours after sex, but does not terminate an already established pregnancy.
But Catholic Church leaders fear these provisions will allow abortions to occur even when sexual abuse has not been proven – in other words, that women may “invent” reports of rape to obtain legal abortions.
“It is despicable to think a priori that women are dishonest liars,” Freitas complained. “And it also shows a lack of respect for the knowledge of the health professionals who talk to and examine patients.”
Freitas pointed out that legal abortions are not easy to obtain in Brazil. “A multi-disciplinary team made up of doctors, nurses, social workers and psychologists decides how to proceed in each case.”
So, “if a woman was inventing her story, she would be found out. But first she must be listened to and not condemned in advance,” she said.
Freitas highlighted that the new law compels the health services to follow regulations in force since 1999, “confronting the legal obstacles that anti-abortion sectors put in the way of rape victims when they decide to terminate a pregnancy and making it possible to penalise health professionals who fail to comply.”
She pointed out that, although emergency contraception and abortions are legal in certain cases, they are frequently not provided.
“There is a general lack of information and of referral services for this kind of care. Brazil is huge and hospitals with this kind of services only exist in the state capitals and other large cities,” Freitas said.
“There are doctors and hospital directors who refuse to talk about the issue and do not provide the service because of conscientious objections,” she said.