August 20, 1997
Brazil lawmakers ignore church, back abortion bill
BRASILIA (Reuter) - Pro-abortion activists in Brazil won a narrow victory over religious groups Wednesday when a congressional panel backed a bill guaranteeing the right to abortion for rape victims and women at risk from their pregnancies.
The bill, which has been stuck in the lower house of parliament for six years, was approved by 24 votes to 23 by a committee. It faces further hurdles in Congress but backers celebrated Wednesday's result as a major breakthrough.
``This is a victory for all Brazilian women,'' Zulaide Cobra, a lawmaker in charge of the controversial bill, said.
Representatives of the Catholic, Protestant and spiritist churches heckled supporters of the bill with shouts of ''murderers!'' and broke into tears as the result was announced.
Although abortion is illegal in Brazil, the country's 1940 penal code waived punishment in cases of rape or life-threatening pregnancies.
Since then, however, only a handful of state and municipal governments have actually put the law into practice and only eight hospitals in the country observe the code.
``The effect has been to penalize poor women who can't afford clandestine abortion clinics. They naturally turn to dangerous alternatives,'' Alice Libardoni, of the non-governmental Feminists Studies Center which supports the bill, said.
Brazil's Health Ministry estimates that 1 million illegal abortions take place each year. Abortion-related infections are the fifth biggest killer of women in Brazil, excluding deaths from natural causes.
Members of Brazil's Catholic Church said they would continue to oppose the bill throughout its passage through Congress.
``This legislation is really the starting point for the wholesale legalization of abortion,'' Dom Manoel Pestana, bishop of the Anapolis, said. ``The fact that a woman was raped or is at risk of dying does not resolve the problem of murder.''
Several other bills in Congress would legalize abortion for all Brazilian women but supporters admit they stand little chance of approval in the near future.