Outraged Brazilian women stage protests against bill to equate late abortions with homicide

SAO PAULO (AP) — Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of the capital Saturday as protests sweep across Brazil in opposition to a bill that would further criminalize abortions. If passed, the law would equate the termination of a pregnancy after 22 weeks with homicide.

The bill, proposed by conservative lawmakers and heading for a vote in the lower house, would also apply in cases of rape. Critics say those who seek an abortion so late are mostly child rape victims, as their pregnancies tend to be detected later.

To rally opposition, rights’ groups created the ‘A child is not a mother’ campaign that has flooded social media. Placards, stickers and banners emblazoned with the slogan have abounded during demonstrations. And viral visuals depicting women in red cloaks compare Brazil to Gilead, the theocratic patriarchy Margaret Atwood created in her dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

About 10,000 people, mostly women, filled several blocks of Sao Paulo’s main boulevard on Saturday afternoon, organizers estimated. It was the biggest demonstration yet, following events in Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Florianopolis, Recife, Manaus, and other cities. Many wore green clothes and scarves, a common sight in women’s rights mobilizations across Latin America.

Marli Gavioli, 65, has mostly refrained from protesting since demonstrations in the 1980s that called for the end of the military dictatorship, but she told The Associated Press she's too outraged to remain home.

“I couldn’t stay out of this, or I would regret it too much. We are being whipped from all sides, us women. It’s past time we do something,” she said.

Brazil only permits abortion in cases of rape if there is an evident risk to the mother’s life or if the fetus has no functioning brain. Aside from those exceptions, Brazil’s penal code imposes between one and three years jail time for women who end a pregnancy. Some Brazilian women fly abroad in order to obtain abortions.

If the bill becomes law, the sentence would rise to between six and 20 years when an abortion is performed after 22 weeks. Critics have highlighted that would mean convicted rapists could receive lesser sentences than their victims.

Experts say that late access to abortion reflects inequalities in health care. Children, poor women, Black women and those living in rural areas are particularly at risk.

“We cannot be sentenced to prison for having suffered a rape and not receiving support and care,” Talita Rodrigues, a member of rights’ group National Front against the Criminalization of Women and for the Legalization of Abortion, said by phone.

Of the 74,930 people who were victims of rape in Brazil in 2022, 61.4% were under 14 years old, according to a 2023 study of the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, an independent group that tracks crimes.

“For children, it is common for a pregnancy to be discovered only after 22 weeks,” Ivanilda Figueiredo, a professor of law at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, said by phone. For example, they might not know that periods — a sign women aren't pregnant — are monthly, she said.

Among the protesters in downtown Rio on Thursday was Graziela Souza, a 25-year-old student who was sexually assaulted as a child.

“I think it’s very important for victims to be present, as much as it hurts," Souza said. "We must speak out and fight against it, because if we stay at home we are going to lose.”

Defenders of the bill have argued that abortions at a later stage were unimaginable when Brazil’s penal code was adopted in 1940, which explains why there is currently no time limit. Had it been envisioned, they argue, it would be considered infanticide.

The bill’s author, lawmaker and Evangelical pastor Sóstenes Cavalcante, declined an interview request from the AP.

On Wednesday, the lower house Speaker Arthur Lira rushed through a procedure to fast-track the bill in under 30 seconds, with many lawmakers reportedly unaware it was taking place. The maneuver allows the plenary to vote without the bill first clearing committees. Lira has been a top target for protesters' ire. Signs on Saturday read “What if it happened to your daughter, Lira?” and simply “Lira out.”

Conservative lawmakers proposing the bill — who protesters have dubbed ‘the rape caucus’ — are playing politics, hoping to boost turnout and support from Evangelical voters in October municipal elections, Fernanda Barros dos Santos, a political scientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said by phone. Abortion is a topic of high concern for Christians, who make up a majority of voters in Brazil.

“The bill puts people who are progressive in a very difficult situation, because they lose votes by defending abortion rights,” said Figueiredo, the law professor.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government has been seeking inroads with Evangelicals, a key voting bloc for far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro. Lula beat Bolsonaro in the 2022 presidential election.

“The president sent a letter to Evangelicals in the campaign saying he was against abortion. We want to see if he will veto it. Let’s test Lula,” Cavalcante, the bill's author, told local news outlet G1 on Tuesday.

First lady Rosângela da Silva, known as Janja, slammed the proposal on social media Friday, saying women and girls who are raped need to be protected, not revictimized. Lula finally weighed in on Saturday, speaking at the G7 in Italy.

"I had five kids, eight grandchildren and a great-grandchild. I'm against abortion. However, since abortion is a reality, we need to treat abortion as a public health issue," he said in a news conference. “And I think it's insanity that someone wants to punish a woman with a sentence that's longer than the criminal who committed the rape."

Although strict abortion laws have long been the norm across the predominantly Roman Catholic region of Latin America, feminist movements have gained momentum in recent years and delivered successive victories for abortion-rights campaigners. Colombia’s Supreme Court decriminalized abortion in 2022, following a similar breakthrough ruling by Mexico. Argentina’s Congress legalized abortion in 2020, and a few years earlier Chile rolled back a strict ban.

In the U.S., the Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously preserved access to a medication that was used in nearly two-thirds of all abortions in the country last year, in the court’s first abortion decision since conservative justices overturned Roe v. Wade two years ago.

Last September, Brazil’s top court opened a session on decriminalization of abortion. Former Chief Justice Rosa Weber, now retired, voted in favor. Chief Justice Luís Roberto Barroso — who also supports decriminalization — asked for an adjournment and the vote can be resumed at his behest.

“We are behind on this issue, and we need to fight for progress,” Eduarda Isnoldo, a 27-year-old English teacher, said through tears at the Sao Paulo protest. “When you realize that your rights can be taken away so easily, it’s impossible to stay quiet.”


Hughes reported from Rio de Janeiro.