By Lucy Jordan, Senior Contributing Reporter

BRASÍLIA, BRAZIL – A group representing Brazil’s doctors has, for the first time, voiced support for the decriminalization of abortion. The support comes as the senate debates reforming abortion law as part of an overhaul of the country’s penal code.

The President of the Federal Medical Council, Roberto D'Avila, Abortion, Brazil News
The President of the Federal Medical Council, Roberto D’Avila, said decriminalization of abortion up to 12 weeks would reduce the risks for low-income women in particular, photo by Marcello Casal Jr./ABr.

The Federal Council of Medicine (CFM), which represents 400,000 doctors, said in a statement last week that the council supported the “autonomy” of women to choose to terminate pregnancies of up to twelve weeks.

“We are pro-life, but we want to respect the autonomy of women who up until the twelfth week, have made the decision to terminate her pregnancy,” said the president of the Federal Council of Medicine (CFM), Roberto Luiz d’Avila.

The statement added that abortions are currently the fifth cause of maternal mortality, and that poor women are more at risk, as they cannot afford to pay for a reliable illegal abortion or travel abroad for the procedure. The position will be sent to the commission of lawyers who are currently working on reforming the current penal code.

“This statement [from the CFM] is crucial to the debate on abortion from the most urgent perspective, which is public health,” Debora Diniz, who co-authored a groundbreaking 2010 University of Brasilia study on abortion in Brazil, told The Rio Times. “The CFM’s position will be of great importance for the conduct of the debate, and for the promotion of public policies and legislation that care for women rather than condemning them.”

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Members of the group Brazil Without Abortion protest outside the Supreme Court last year, photo by Antonio Cruz/ABr.

Currently abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, anencephaly, which causes severe brain damage, or where the mother’s life is at risk.

Despite its illegality, the Ministry of Health estimates that about one million abortions are undertaken every year in Brazil – 32 per 1,000 women, compared to 12 per 1,000 in Western Europe. Professor Diniz’s 2010 UNB study – the first of its kind – showed that 1 in 5 Brazilian women had had at least one abortion, totaling more than five million women.

“Will the state put five million women in jail?” asked Diniz’s co-author, Professor Marcelo Medeiros, at the time of its publication.

Of these five million women, more than half – 55 percent – had to be hospitalized because of complications such as infections and bleeding.

Abortion is a deeply divisive issue in Brazil, which has the world’s largest Catholic population, and it played a significant role during the 2010 presidential election. President Dilma Rousseff has said that she considers it a “public health” issue, which most observers interpreted as tacit support for legislation that would move abortions out of the back alley and into the hospital.

The issue is also likely to cause a headache for the new Pope Francis, who will visit Brazil in July for World Youth Day. The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) responded to the CFM’s statement in terms that showed it is not willing to budge.

“The CFM evokes women’s autonomy and the doctor’s, completely ignoring the unborn child,” read the CNBB’s statement. “This is not a clump of cells with no bigger meaning, but a human being with a well-defined biological identity.”

A revival of the discussion will be unwelcome at a time when the new Pope, Latin America’s first, will be hoping to revive Catholicism on the continent, where members of the church have been steadily converting to evangelicalism and secularism for years.

In 2009 Brazil’s Catholic Church caused international outrage when it excommunicated doctors who terminated the pregnancy of a nine-year-old girl who had been raped by her stepfather and whose pregnancy endangered her life.

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