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Reproductive Rights in Brazil

Updated: Mar 28

Back to the Past: Brazil’s Backlash of Reproductive Justice in its Domestic and Foreign Policy


by Aline Beatriz Coutinho and Kristina Hinz

Photo: Aline Coutinho

With its recent votes against the inclusion of ‘sexual and reproductive rights’ and ‘sexual education’ in the resolutions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), Brazil, alongside  countries like Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, is breaking with its foreign policy tradition of the last 25 years. This characterised by the unfettered defence of the universalism of human rights (Lafer, 2009, Komniski, 2017, Chade, 2019a). 

Under the administrations of Michel Temer (2016-2018) and Jair Bolsonaro (2019 - today), ultra-conservative and religious fundamentalist forces have gained significant political power, putting already fragile sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in their crosshairs (Mussi and Bianchi, 2018, Anderson, 2019).


In its attempt to formulate domestic policies and international resolutions centred on combating so-called ‘gender ideology’ and protecting ‘the traditional family’, Brazil is among the main countries to articulate a conservative transformation in the understanding of human rights, especially relating to SRHR (Corrêa et al, 2018). This push towards a religious-ideological interpretation of SRHR is taking place in both the domestic sphere of Brazil and the international sphere (Mello, 2019, Lima and Albuquerque, 2019).

SRHR and the universalism of human rights as the basis of Brazil’s former foreign policy

While Brazil is considered a country with somewhat backward SRHR legislation - abortion is not only forbidden in Brazil, it is considered a crime against human life, punishable with imprisonment for physicians and pregnant women (Presidência da República, 1940). Yet,     notable progress was made under the previous Worker’s Party governments led by Luiz Inácio da Silva (2003-2011) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016).


In 2012, for example, abortion became legalised in the case of diagnosed anencephaly in the foetus (Supremo Tribunal Federal, 2013). In addition, in 2013, the Rousseff administration passed a law that guarantees comprehensive counselling and care to the victims of sexualised violence (Presidência da República, 2013).

Internationally, Brazil has, in the past, taken an even bolder stance in defending SRHR, adopting the universal defence of human rights as the guiding principle of its foreign policy. Establishing itself as a world leader in defending the rights of women and LGBT + groups in the HRC, the country even presented, together with South Africa, the first resolution on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in 2016 (Komniski, 2017). 

Pact of the devil? Neo-Pentecostal churches and the governments of Temer and Bolsonaro

With the 2016 impeachment of Rousseff, and the subsequent governments of Temer and      Bolsonaro, a rupture was introduced in both domestic and foreign policy. Under both of the latter governments, religious-conservative and, particularly, Neo-Pentecostal forces were able to expand their influence in the legislative and executive branches.


Currently, approximately 30% of all deputies in the lower house of the National Congress of Brazil (Congress) are affiliated with the so-called ‘Evangelical Parliamentary Front’ — a political interest group made up of various politicians who position themselves against gender equality, abortion and homosexuality (Machado, 2017, Coutinho, 2019).

In addition, under the Bolsonaro government, the Evangelical Parliamentary Front was able to secure strategic positions, such as with the appointment of the Evangelical pastor Damares Alves as Minister of Human Rights, Family and Women. As early as in her inaugural address, Alves declared that “a new era had arrived where ‘boys wear blue and girls wear pink’”, resonating with Bolsonaro’s first presidential discourse in which he promised to ‘value the family’ and to combat so-called ‘gender ideology’(Veja, 2019, Pains, 2019). 

Alves, a well-known ‘pro-life’ activist, effectuated the first public and political gesture against SRHR, when she endorsed the launch of the ‘Parliamentary Front in Defense of Life and Family’ in Congress (Portinari, 2019). This new ideological turn in the executive branch has already expanded to the legislative. Under Bolsonaro, 12 new legal projects pertaining to the interruption of pregnancy have been presented, seeking to limit access to an abortion even in cases where it is already legal, including after rape or when the pregnancy constitutes a danger for the mother’s life (Carta Capital, 2019).

For the family and the foetus: An ideological and religious turn in Brazil’s foreign policy

The strategic influence of religious and other conservative forces is noticeable not only in Brazil’s domestic sphere, but also in its foreign policy. The nomination of Ernesto Araújo as    Minister of Foreign Affairs was made upon the recommendation of Olavo de Carvalho, a well-known conspiracy theorist and the ‘intellectual guru’ of the Bolsonaro government.


Araújo’s articulated disbelief in so-called ‘globalism’ and ‘climatism’ - meaning globalisation and global warming - marks the start of a new era in Brazilian foreign affairs. Similarly, the fight against so-called ‘gender ideology’ and reproductive rights now constitutes one of the flagship projects of Brazilian foreign policy (Mello, 2018, O Globo, 2018, Araújo, 2019). 

At the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and other international bodies, the Brazilian delegations have, under the instructions of their new government, vetoed any mention of the use of the word ‘gender’ in UN resolutions, which had been  introduced by consensus at the Cairo and Beijing Conferences of the 1990s (Campos Mello, 2019).


The new Brazilian pro-life and pro-family discourse has won supporters at the international level, bringing Brazil in line with other nations with similar ideological positions, including the US, Hungary, and even Saudi Arabia (Chade, 2019a, Cha, 2019). This new alignment in foreign policy exposes the rise of political-religious factions that are spreading internationally (Chade, 2019b).


In opposing the guarantee of women’s reproductive and sexual autonomy, these factions are provoking a backlash against the rights women have gained since the 1960s. If, until 2018, Brazil was one of the most important countries in favour of these rights, the Bolsonaro government has reversed  this reputation. 

Now, unfortunately, Brazil stands against women’s lives. 


Aline Beatriz Coutinho is a feminist activist for Reproductive Rights based in Rio de Janeiro and a member of the collective Now it’s our Time to Legalize Abortion (NHLA-RJ). She researches Sexual and Reproductive Rights, gender, movements and feminist theory, co-coordinating the Gender Working Group of the National Association of History (Anpuh / RJ). She graduated in History from the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO), holds a postgraduate degree in Gender and Sexuality Studies from the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in History at UNIRIO, writing her master’s thesis on the political disputes over Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Brazil.

Kristina Hinz is a lecturer, writer and policy advisor specialized in gender-based violence, security policy and feminist movements in Brazil. Currently, she is working as a researcher at the Center for Studies on Inequalities and Gender Relations (NUDERG), State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), and writing her PhD dissertation “Women and the War on Drugs: The Militarization of Female Marginality as a Mechanism of Social Control in Democratic Brazil” at the Free University of Berlin, funded by Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.


This article was first published in the fourth issue of Disrupted: “The Reproductive Rights Issue.” Reproduced with the authors' permission


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