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.

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.

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.

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.