Abortion in Brazilian journalism

Image: Mariana Montrazi


The media is more attached to its mercantile and class interests than its mission to promote democracy

“Would you bear to stay a little longer (with the pregnancy)?” asks Judge Joana Ribeiro Zimmer, from the District of Tijucas, in Santa Catarina, to a 10-year-old girl, victim of a pregnancy caused by rape. The magistrate's approach was revealed by the website The Intercept, generated commotion and made headlines in the country and in the international press. No accident.

The succession of violations that the girl suffered provoked a wave of criticism, compassion and positions of all kinds. The case reignited heated discussions on the networks, revealed failure and distortion of information from authorities and professionals who should form a protection network. It also led to the investigation of sabotage and misguidance by health and justice institutions and, in addition, demonstrated how eloquent the absence of journalism in the proposition and broader contribution of this debate has been.

Days after that tragic event, other headlines would bring the topic of abortion in newspapers around the world. This time, the US Supreme Court would make a decision to remind everyone that women's reproductive rights need to be safeguarded permanently. The legal backlash went back 50 years, when in 1970 a waitress from Dallas, Norma McCorvey, under the pseudonym Jane Roe, sued Henry Wade, a prosecutor in the Texas city, to demand her right to an abortion in that state. Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled by seven votes to two, supported by the privacy amendment, in favor of Roe. The decision came late for her, who gave up the daughter she bore for adoption, but guaranteed the right to thousands of women over the next five decades.

The dispute for women's reproductive rights, however, has always been bitter and far from peaceful. Another woman, Lynn Fitch, attorney general of the US state of Mississippi, in September of last year, would file a response from her state to the Roe case vs Wade. The decision of the Supreme Court of the United States was to overturn the federal law that guaranteed the right of women to have a legal abortion in the country, this in the year of grace 2022.

The protagonism of these women – Joana, Norma and Lynn – positioned in different ideological fields, with different responsibilities, promoters or bearers of rights, helps to understand how paradoxical this sensitive topic is, lends itself to different discursive strategies, at the same time that it it is configured as a segregating agenda in society and unifying activist and religious groups. It is quite usual when one wants to move forward in the examination of the subject that one defends treating abortion not only as a personal decision, but as a public health issue. Or point out that it is not a question of a choice guided by religious beliefs, but a reproductive right, or even that it should not be an ideological issue, but a matter of the legal order. It's all about it together. Even the progressive discourse needs to find bridges and recognize delicate perceptions in a sensitive theme, with double morals and loaded with appeals of all kinds.

It is fundamental to understand that the controversies regarding the body, sexuality and reproductive rights are highly complex issues and experience new frontiers by bringing issues previously considered intimate to public discussion and their political consequences. In 2013, I defended the thesis Abortion scheduling in the Brazilian presidential campaign in 2010: strategic reverberation and silencing between press, social media and candidates. In this research work, I observe that, all over the world, the discussion about the decriminalization of abortion and related issues that have to do with sexual and reproductive rights is characterized by a sharp political and cultural division, deepening disagreements and making debate difficult. The trajectory of legislative proposals, media coverage and mobilization for the recognition of sexual and reproductive rights that grant autonomy to women reveal a set of contradictions characterized by a widespread practice and, at the same time, the difficulty in bringing decriminalization proposals to the scene public, due to the political costs that the defense of such a discussion imposes.

“The influence of religious leaders in blocking the inclusion of the issue in the public agenda, the tradition of tolerating the practice as long as it is silent, and the consequent difficulty of militant pro-abortion groups in disputing the issue with public opinion as a factor of women's autonomy. women, even under arguments of public health and democracy, are factors that make this topic a polemic with the potential to unbalance the discussion during an electoral campaign and reveal the difficulties to broaden the debate, even with a new space of information and communication shaped by the new technological devices on the internet”, says an excerpt from the work.

The course of my investigation showed how the strategic appropriation of the theme is usual to wear down progressive candidates and unify more conservative groups around customs agendas. The feeling is that we will never be mature enough as a society to talk about a problem that causes maternal deaths and criminalizes women. Cases like that of the girl who was twice raped in Santa Catarina can help us to understand that perhaps society finds it pertinent to know more and reflect on the subject.

Recent research by the Datafolha institute released by the newspaper Folha de S. Paul points out that the portion of the population that says it agrees with the total restriction of the interruption of pregnancy in the country reduced from 41% in 2018 to 32%. The number of people who agree with the statement that the law should remain as it is increased from 34% to 39%. Currently, abortion is criminalized in the country, with the exception of cases of rape, risk to the mother and anencephaly of the fetus by decision of the STF. There are proposals and militancy to prevent all kinds of cases.

And there is known to be an unwelcoming action by institutions that should guarantee access to the procedure in the cases provided for by law. There is still a lot of confusion and disorientation about procedures and procedures. The Ministry of Health itself released a manual contrary to the legal abortion policy. Earlier this month, Minister Edson Fachin, of the Federal Supreme Court (STF), set a deadline for the government to manifest itself. He is the rapporteur of a lawsuit filed by four health entities against government initiatives related to the topic. The gynecologist Raphael Câmara Medeiros Parente, appointed as secretary of Primary Health Care of the Ministry of Health maintained that “illegal abortion is not a public health issue”. Entities denounce that the manual ignores Brazilian law and says that every procedure is a crime with some exclusions of illegality.

The Ministry of Health, on the other hand, claims that the termination of pregnancy in these cases can only occur up to the 22nd week and that, after this period, early delivery occurs. If the highest health body in the country guides in a confusing way, distorting technical data and creating obstacles for cases that fit the current rules, if religious principles take the place of promoting public policies, if the most progressive candidates and parties fear address the issue and remain silent in the face of strategic use to wear down opponents, if digital social networks function as a locus of disinformation, who should propose, mediate and inform the public debate? Journalism, no doubt.


The press and coverage of the topic

Journalism assumes its functions as an expert system and instance of truth verification in an even more necessary way, considering the conversational environment derived from digital connections. The current subject is defined less by an identity and more by identifications (Hall, 2006). A structural change that fragments cultural elements of class, gender, religion, ethnicity, race and nationality. It seems that, in fact, the contemporary persona is eminently relational. Even so, more than exposing himself to the other's ideas, he is willing to convince about his points of view and seek comfort zones in communities of equal thought.

Journalism is the field that can contribute with authority, ethics and technique in high inquiry problems. Although the digital environment offers a wide variety of versions, organized and professionalized institutional sources remain the ones with the most access to media, constituting an important support for the established power relations, an aspect emphasized by Tuchman (1983). With this premise, the author poses the question of knowing to what extent the media is an agent of legitimation of the existing order. Or change and advocacy.

Observing whether the media covers conceptually and contextually the controversial issues that interest society is a good measure to verify this question. Journalistic coverage of taboo topics such as abortion and related topics that involve the concept of family constitutes a field of polemics and permanent divergences that do not have a well-defined conduct by the press, leading to the assumption that the various audiences and perspectives involved are not equally contemplated.

Political, religious and scientific interests end up expanding the number of pressure groups with different positions, making the debate more complex and, not infrequently, silenced. In the thesis defended by me and cited in this text, press coverage was one of the analyzes undertaken in order to identify the performance of the press in the correlations between voters and candidates by addressing a controversial topic such as abortion.

Three newspapers with national circulation were selected for analysis: Folha de São Paulo (FSP), State of Sao Paulo (ESP) and The Globe (GLB). The three vehicles chosen were also the ones that presented the largest volume of published texts on abortion, considering the campaign as a whole and the analysis cut-off period, between September 29 and October 31, that is, the eve of the 1st round to the 2nd round of the 2010 elections. During this period, the database consisted of the three newspapers, with a total of 269 texts referring to the abortion theme, distributed as follows: 112 published in Folha de São Paulo, 70 texts in the State of São Paulo and 87 publications in the newspaper O Globo. Folha and Globo used the word “abortion” in their headlines in approximately 30% of the texts.

Titles should announce and summarize the information and convince the reader that the bias presented is important, in addition to attracting him to read and “selling” the importance of the text. That is, it is an indicative of prominence for the theme. already the Estadão put “abortion” in the headlines in 41% of the texts. Most of the texts, more than 70%, were classified as informative genre (note, reportage and news), against 30% of opinion genre. This distinction has the purpose of characterizing the discursive strategy present in the coverage, demonstrating the combination of information and opinions that newspapers reserve in their spaces, in the treatment of the subject. Is the press an actor determined to participate in the formation of opinion in the electoral process, and with what resources does it do this?

In summary, the three newspapers recorded similar frequencies in the reverberation of the abortion theme on specific dates, between October 05th and 10th. The Globe, FSP e ESP they also published editorials dealing with the issue of abortion in the campaign. All concentrated their opinion, analyzes and publication of reports on the subject at the start of the second round, analyzing that the use of abortion contributed to preventing Dilma Rousseff's victory in the first stage. This reverberation maintained the debate around the theme, fueled conversations on social networks and interfered in the candidates' discursive strategy and in actions to seek and maintain alliances with religious groups.

The frequency of the theme in tune with political actions and movements in social media indicates correspondence between agendas and the role of the press in maintaining the visibility of the theme, feeding social media and interfering with the silence of candidates. The intensity of articles in specific moments of the election demonstrates the journalistic contribution to maintaining the agenda in the campaign's repertoire. Although in editorials the newspapers condemn the use of the theme guided by moral and religious representations and criticize the candidates for approaching the subject in the same way, the vehicles themselves fostered the discussion in this angle.

In fact, they articulated an informative coverage with reports that did not seek to deepen the theme by resorting to data and studies with a public health bias. The only exception in all the coverage was a report in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper that dealt with the theme more completely, with reflections and surveys regarding the practice that leads to the death of thousands of Brazilian women. The coverage of the political and partisan movement around the theme, the surveys around the actions and statements of the candidates, served to fuel conversations on social media, produce and share videos and maintain, at least for a strategic period of definition of tactics of the second round, abortion as the most important issue in the electoral debate of that election. In this election year, how will it be? Will journalism cover the moral, religious and ideological framework? Or could you start reporting, discussing, debating, expanding points of view, offering data and demonstrating examples?

The case of the girl from Santa Catarina revealed by Brazilian journalism made the pages of Newsweek, New York Post, ABC News, Daily Mail, portal Independent, saying that the case attracted widespread criticism and indignation, describing the actions of justice and betting that the matter will come back in the questions of the electoral debate. What position should journalism take this time? Faced with hunger, death, violence and dismantling, can the apprehension of such a difficult subject dispense with a serious, informed and consequential debate? In-depth articles on concrete positive results in protecting and even reducing this practice, which is always devastating for women, could be a good way forward. Problematizing the fact that many defend a right as soon as another violation has been committed (ie, can you only abort if you have been violated before?) would be an obligation of those who need to narrate the world and help build opinions.

It is mainly thanks to journalistic activity that cases of violations of rights can be known and, also, claimed for their protection. It is up to journalism, mainly due to its weight with public opinion, to denounce and claim rights, democratic threats and their obstacles. The last decade in our country, however, shows the shadows that do not cease to cloud the democratic normality with an erratic and dubious performance of the main means of communication. There was a break with the political and social pact of the 1988 constitution, with contempt for constitutional clauses and opportunistic actions that generate republican imbalance and political setbacks in all areas.

The current environment of sealing and impeding debate at various levels, of deformed public communication in vital areas, of corrupted and denied debatable regimes, had at various times the complicity of the reference media, more accustomed to their mercantile and class interests than the than its mission to promote democracy. Perhaps rock bottom and the fact that it has also become a target of political annihilation are a sufficient stimulus for it to play an even more relevant role in dark times.

Make your bets. Horrors do not cease easily and never cease to amaze us.

* Sandra Bitencourt is a journalist, PhD in communication and information from UFRGS, director of communication at Instituto Novos Paradigmas (INP).



HALL, Stuart. Cultural identity in postmodernity. São Paulo, DP&A, 2006.

TUCHMAN, Gaye. The production of the news. Study on the construction of reality. Barcelona, ​​Gustavo Gili, 1983.


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