We need to talk about the silence on abortion on the left

Tracey Emin, Horribly Wrong, 1997


In Brazil, the issue of voluntary termination of pregnancy has always been a white elephant in the 'big politics' room.

The controversial speech by Lula about abortion opened up old contradictions in Brazilian politics: the difficulty of talking about voluntary termination of pregnancy at any point of the political spectrum. If hysterical manifestations of repudiation from the right are always to be expected, the reticence of the left is what causes the most discomfort. Although the old tactic of letting the debate die seems to be the most comfortable solution, I argue that it is past time to qualify this conversation a little more.

In Brazil, the issue of voluntary termination of pregnancy has always been a white elephant in the room of 'big politics' on the left. A historical demand of feminist movements, we were only able to discuss decriminalization systematically, within the spaces of institutional representation, after the redemocratization of 1988. Even so, always in a slow and gradual manner, keeping the subject at a safe distance from the elections and the candidates electoral.

In the last shows of candidates for the presidency of the left, the word abortion is condescendingly omitted, and the subject goes far from the podiums, even when the debate is gender justice. The argument that sustains the silence is a rereading of the old subalternization of feminist agendas, here disguised as a political tactic: the abortion debate is very delicate, an amalgamation of moral, religious and social issues, and it attracts intense enough criticism to threaten the viability electoral progressive programs.

And the result is this: in redemocratization, the agenda was left aside because the focus would be to end the dictatorship, in the 90s by combating the neoliberal project, in 2002 due to the importance of electing the first worker president in the history of the country, and in 2014 for the re-election effort of President Dilma Rousseff. Currently, the urgency to overthrow Bolsonaro asks women, once again, for patience, as it is not yet the “right” time to speak, since the defense of a greater scope of the right to abortion could jeopardize the victory of the PT for poking the hornet's nest of the religious electorate. Really?

Far from any collective irresponsibility, since women and social movements are the main stakeholders in the victory of progressive projects and in the end of Bolsonarism, I believe that it is time to at least question ourselves if this interdiction. Does it come from a true reading of the situation, or is it more a result of the difficulty of understanding themes that are marginalized by the left's machismo itself?

The sincere question we need to ask ourselves is whether the difficulty of talking about reproductive justice comes from a conservative stance of a society that is totally impervious to abortion, or whether this permanence of a conservative stance is a result of the way the issue is treated by the main political debates.

The very nature of the debate makes it very difficult to pinpoint which way this balance is tipped, but an answer to this question is the first step in guiding a strategy that truly responds to the contradictions of the present. To escape the pitfalls of moralism that cloud this conversation, basing ourselves on data is essential.

According to the National Abortion Survey, in 2016, one in every 5 women would have had voluntary abortions in Brazil.[I] Research prepared from DataSUS points out that, in 2020, SUS recorded 642 hospitalizations of girls aged 10 to 14 years as a result of unsuccessful abortions. By way of comparison, there were 714 hospitalizations for asthma in the same universe of gender and age.[ii] In addition, between 2013 and 2015, research funded by the Special Secretariat for Women's Policy found that, in two years, only 48% of women who sought services to terminate a pregnancy due to rape were able to undergo the procedure.[iii] Finally, in a survey carried out in 2017, 45% of Brazilians interviewed answered yes when asked if they knew any woman who had already had an abortion.[iv]

These surveys outline a scenario where abortion is not absent from Brazilian society and culture. Quite the opposite. Approximately 20% of the female population has already had an abortion, the magnitude of the health problem that clandestine abortion generates is equivalent to that of an extremely common childhood illness and, finally, even legal abortion policies are deficient for half of the users who use them. seek in the public health system.

The conclusion is that the discussion about the right to abortion is not a delusional demand of the feminist movement, but a reality in the life of the Brazilian population (always remembering that, even if it is women who have abortions, it is a situation that also implies men). Present in the concreteness of life, the silence about the voluntary interruption of pregnancy is made in the field of ideology: decades and decades of intense and conscious action by certain segments of society, religious and conservative, for the maintenance of the criminalization of a practice present in reproductive life feminine.

Abortion is not naturally rejected, but culturally. As several feminists say, the practice has not always been banned, and its criminalization is reinforced in a certain period of Western history, precisely as a mechanism for controlling women's bodies and reproducing the working class to organize production under capitalism.[v]

If some religious trends and conservative ideology have the issue of abortion as one of their most heated forms of agitation, the retreat of the left also has roots in patriarchy. Considering the numbers, the reason why this urgent issue of reproductive life is no longer openly discussed is the lack of recognition of women as political subjects.

The political dispute is always a dispute over the conception of society, what happens is that women's demands are always left for later, until it is too late. When the time comes to materialize the political dispute at the polls, conservatism, which constantly works on the issue, has apparent hegemony in the public debate, giving the impression that there is no gap to put this debate on the table.

However, considering this contradiction between the reality of a society in which abortion takes place in considerable numbers, and a public discourse constructed by the right to intensely criminalize this practice, the common sense that “one cannot talk about abortion to win an election” needs to be be rethought. In place of this platitude, we need to ask ourselves another question: is it possible to say, based on real data, that there are no material conditions to guide abortion in Brazil today?

I dare say that it is not possible, and I explain. Currently, we do not have any measurement capable of effectively proving the rejection of the practice of abortion, the real influence of religion in this decision, as well as the inclination not to vote for a candidate based on this programmatic variable. First, because we cannot take social networks as a metric, since they are dominated by a considerable number of bots and other automation mechanisms that distort the real temperature of opinions.

But more than that, even in an opinion poll on abortion, the method and the questions used strongly influence the results. Researcher Débora Diniz calls this distortion “response expectation”: since it is still a matter of committing a crime according to our Penal Code, and that there is a strong moral burden, especially on women subjected to the pressure of romanticized motherhood , people tend to respond not according to their opinion, but according to what they believe society expects to hear.

Thus, when asked directly whether they are for or against abortion, people tend to respond in the negative, even if this is not their formed opinion. However, if the question is “do you think a woman should be arrested for having a voluntary abortion?” 8 out of 10 Brazilians say no, and that they believe that the matter is a matter of human rights and public health – including religious people. These data point out that the very idea that all evangelical women naturally support the criminalization of the practice is a prejudiced assessment, which sees these women only as a maneuvering mass for great religious leaders.[vi]

Looking carefully, the truth is that the topic is in dispute and, if we are losing, it's because we didn't show up on the field. Considering the weight of the “customs guidelines” in this year's election, it is a fact that it is past time to put one's finger in the hornet's nest and take the hegemony over public opinion from the right's hand. This supposed “defeat from the start” of the demand for the right to abortion is not based on a neutral reading of reality, but on a failed act of machismo on the left turned into an argument: the silence of the progressive camp is nothing more than blindness to the real condition of reproductive issues, and the old fear that women, politically active, take the center of the debate, taking the place of the dominant political subject that determines what are the “great issues” that we should discuss.

*Tainan Gois is a doctoral student in Law at USP, advisor for Women's Policy in the City of São Paulo, coordinator of the Law and Diversity Center at the Superior School of Advocacy (OAB-SP).


[I] Source: National Abortion Survey, 2016. Available at: https://pesquisa.bvsalud.org/portal/resource/pt/biblio-890272

[ii] Source: DataSUS, elaborated by Revista Piauí. Available at: https://piaui.folha.uol.com.br/os-abortos-diarios-do-brasil/

[iii] Source: Instituto Locomotiva/Patrícia Galvão. Available at: https://g1.globo.com/sp/sao-paulo/noticia/quase-metade-dos-brasileiros-conhece-uma-mulher-que-fez-aborto-diz-pesquisa.ghtml

[iv] Source: ditto.

[v] The famous book Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici presents the history of the criminalization of abortion in the development of capitalism. In a text from 2016, I present the argument of these feminists to describe the importance of criminalizing abortion for the organization of salaried work in capitalism: http://www.justificando.com/2017/09/28/direito-vida-eles-dizem- which-life-we-give back/

[vi] There are several evangelical groups that support and defend the right to abortion. Source: https://g1.globo.com/sp/santos-regiao/noticia/2019/02/19/grupo-de-evangelicas-se-une-para-lutar-pela-legalizacao-do-aborto-nosso-direito.ghtml ou https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/cotidiano/2021/03/edir-macedo-ja-foi-voz-pro-aborto-e-outras-igrejas-relativizaram-pratica-no-passado.shtml



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