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Dirty Campaigning, Brazilian Style

Written by Gillian Kane for RHRealityCheck.org - News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

“Murderer,” “anti-Christ,” “candidate of death.” No, this isn’t Sharron Angle talking about Harry Reid in advance of tomorrow’s election. This was the combative rhetoric framing the lead up to Sunday’s run-off election in Brazil. The 2010 presidential elections marked the first time abortion became a highly debated campaign issue and it followed a fairly American script, replete with allegations against front runner, Dilma Rousseff, that she was a lesbian, a child-killer, a socialist. The tactic didn’t pay off: Rousseff won a resounding victory last night with 56 percent of the vote to become Brazil’s first female president.

It is remarkable that the Catholic Church and its right wing allies succeeded to the extent they did in making abortion a wedge issue because both presidential candidates, Rousseff and her opponent, José Serra, the former governor of Sao Paulo state, are hardly pro-choice—at at least in the way we Americans define pro-choice. Neither advocates for legalizing abortion, neither campaigned on a pro-choice platform, and neither has aligned with the activist Brazilian pro-choice movement.

Abortion is illegal in Brazil, though permissible for two exceptions; rape and risk to life of the pregnant woman. The Brazilian feminist movement, active now for almost 30 years, has made significant progress in the face of unrelenting opposition to legal abortion reform. Gains, however, are measured not in legislative change—there are few political champions within the National Congress—but rather in creating broad awareness about unsafe abortion as a public health issue, ensuring that legal abortions are available, developing a grassroots movement to support legalizing abortion and preventing any regression on existing legislation.

The extraordinary visibility of abortion in this campaign season attests, in part, to the work of the anti-choice opposition. Read more