The struggle of a 10-year old rape victim to exercise her constitutional right to an abortion has sparked a major confrontation in Brazil between women's rights advocates and the administration of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.
Following the girl’s highly publicised case, the Bolsonaro administration rushed out new federal regulations for implementing the law that allows for abortions in cases of rape, when the life of the mother is in danger and for anencephalic pregnancies.
Critics say they are designed to further curtail the country’s already restricted access to abortion and a coalition of women’s rights groups, medical professionals and opposition parties has formed to pressurise congress and the courts into quashing them.
This latest clash over women’s reproductive rights comes in the wake of the failure last month by religious groups and supporters of Bolsonaro to prevent the 10-year old rape victim obtaining an abortion.
The girl became pregnant after years of abuse at the hands of her aunt’s partner, a drug dealer. Such cases are common in Brazil where four girls under 14 are raped every hour, resulting in at least six abortions a day for victims aged between 10 and 14.
But the girl's situation gained national attention shortly after the minister for human rights, family and women Damares Alves sent a team from Brasília to Espírito Santo state to investigate initial reports in local media.
It is now disputed whether the minister’s team entered into contact with the girl’s family. But shortly afterwards anti-abortion activists claiming to be in touch with Alves, who is also an evangelical pastor, visited the family’s home. They pressured the grandmother of the girl, whose mother is dead and father is in prison, not to procure an abortion for her.
Despite being legally entitled to having the pregnancy terminated, the family could not find a hospital in their home state that would carry out the procedure, forcing the girl to fly 1,500km to the city of Recife.
Before she arrived at a hospital there Sara Winter, a former official in Alves's ministry and leader of the far-right pro-Bolsonaro 300 of Brazil militia, illegally divulged the girl's name on social media along with the address of the hospital, calling on activists to mobilise there.
As anti-abortion protesters prayed outside, medical staff reported that others entered the building calling doctors and the girl “murderers”. The young rape victim had to be smuggled into the hospital in the boot of a car.
The health ministry issued the controversial new regulations shortly after the abortion was carried out. They require medical staff to take a detailed report from victims and notify the police. They must also preserve evidence of rape, including possibly fragments of the embryo.
Interim health minister Gen Eduardo Pazuello said the new regulations gave "effective juridical security" to those carrying out abortions.
But critics say the move is just the latest attack on women's reproductive rights by an administration that has pursued a staunchly anti-abortion policy. "These measures were done in haste, are ideologically biased and violate the the law it is supposed to implement," says Sandra Bazzo Barwinski, the Brazil representative of the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defence of the Rights of Women.
‘Attempt to embarrass victim’
In one of two filings with the supreme court against the new measures, the Brazilian Institute of Social Health Organisations said they would make medical professionals responsible for carrying out police work and risked pushing victims towards clandestine abortion clinics for fear of retaliation by their attackers.
The institute also denounced the new requirement stating that before performing an abortion medical personnel must offer the woman or girl an ultrasound to see the foetus as “an attempt to embarrass the victim into not aborting. The situation could cause psychological damage to the victim and sentiments of guilt.”
In congress, opposition deputy Jandira Feghali has tabled a motion to strike down the new regulations, backed by a petition signed by 2,200 health and legal experts that says they make legal abortion unviable.
But anti-abortion advocates in the legislature have also responded to the case of the 10-year-old girl. Two members of Bolsonaro’s bloc have moved to discipline the child protection officer at the public prosecution service in Espírito Santo who helped the girl access a legal abortion.
A conservative Catholic organisation has denounced the doctor who carried out her termination to his regional medical council. The president of Brazil's conference of Catholic bishops, Archbishop Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo, described the girl's abortion as a "heinous crime".