General Articles

Abortion Becomes Hot-Button Issue in Brazilian Presidential Election

On October 31, 2010, Brazil elected its first female president, Dilma Rousseff, with 56 percent of the vote. Even though the clear victory went to Rousseff, the final weeks of the race for the presidency between Worker’s Party candidate Rousseff and the Social Democracy Party’s Jose Serra focused on the issue of abortion. While neither of the candidates is outwardly pro-choice, Rousseff, Brazil’s first female candidate for president, found herself caught in a hailstorm of accusations that she was “the candidate of death” after her opponent brought up the fact that Rousseff had previously supported lifting the country’s abortion ban.[1]
Abortion is illegal in Brazil according to the Brazilian Penal Code, which dates back to 1940 and states that the only exceptions to the law are for rape and risk to the life of the pregnant woman.[2] As the largest Catholic country in the world, with more than 130 million practicing the religion, abortion seemed to be a nonissue in the presidential election, as it was assumed that both candidates morally opposed abortion rights. However, with polling numbers, awarding an early lead of 51 percent of the vote to Rousseff over Serra’s 30 percent,[3] Serra began running ad campaigns touting Rousseff’s views that women should not be criminalized as extremist and anti-Catholic for having abortions.[4]
In response to the allegations that Rousseff—the handpicked successor of previous two-term president Lula de Silva—was in favor of abortion rights, evangelicals and other religiously conservative groups began a campaign against Rousseff, stating that the presidential candidate “didn’t respect religion.”[5] Serra fueled the controversy, campaigning as a “pro-life” champion, declaring himself “in favor of life” and handing out pamphlets stating “Only Jesus Is Truth.”[6] The mudslinging came to a head on October 10 during a televised debate where the issue of abortion turned into an argument filled with “insults and anger,” according to the Christian Science Monitor.[7] “I’ve never defended freedom of abortion; there is no evidence of that. You defended it. I’m not making a value judgment regarding it, you defended it and all of sudden changed, you said the contrary and now claim you are a victim,” said Serra during the debate. “It’s the same regarding God, first you don’t know if you believe or not, then all of a sudden you are devout.”[8]
A census poll taken four days after the debate showed a drop in Rousseff’s numbers and a steep increase in Serra’s, with Rousseff holding 46.8 percent of potential voters support and Serra just four points behind. The sudden shift in numbers clearly showed that the abortion issue had made a deep impact on voters. Said Angelica Raissa, a first-time voter who had seen the televised debate as well as campaign ads that portrayed Rousseff as pro-choice, “I won’t vote for anyone who is in favor of taking an innocent life.”[9]
This is the first time abortion has been a campaign-changing issue in a Brazilian presidential election. Many observers pointed to a desperate attempt by Serra to discredit Rousseff and derail her campaign based on some of her tepid remarks on abortion rights. Political commentators also found that this shows the growing trend of religious influence in the Brazilian political arena, not unlike the political weight the religious Rightholds in the United States regarding such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.[10]
In the final weeks of the campaign Pope Benedict XVI issued a public statement urging Brazil’s bishops to instill the Catholic Church’s abortion position in its citizens and encourage parishioners to vote for the candidate that “respects life.”[11] Rouseff, to counter the negative press and drop in support from Brazilian voters, went so far as to sign a pledge that stated that she is “personally against abortion” and promised not to change existing abortion laws if elected.[12]
“The real question is president-elect Rousseff’s true position on abortion rights,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. “She may have been forced to declare a strictly antiabortion stance during the campaign due to immense public scrutiny, but it is essential to the women of Brazil that she return to her original position of decriminalizing abortion and, during her presidency, work to ease restrictions so that more women have options and resources.”

[1] Claire de Oliveira, “Abortion Debate Weights on Presidential Election,” Google News,27 October 2010, accessed 8 November 2010, <–ncVi05Dtf41Ms_w?docId=CNG.413f2cf7ed1cff4d6ef4178c58aafe6e.aa1>.

[2] Lisa A. Goldman, Sandra G. Garcia, Juan Diaz, and Eileen A. Yam, “Brazilian Obstetrician-Gynecologists and Abortion: A Survey of Knowledge, Opinions, and Practices,” Reproductive Health 2.10 (15 November 2005).

[3] Bradley Brooks, “Brazil Exit Poll: Rousseff with Wide Lead in Vote,” Associated Press, 3 October 2010, accessed 10 November 2010, <>.

[4] Gillian Kane, “Dirty Campaigning, Brazilian Style,” RH Reality Check,1 November, 2010, accessed 8 November 2010, <>.

[5] Solana Pyne, “Abortion Becomes an Issue in Brazil’s Presidential Elections,” The World,28 October, 2010, accessed 9 November 2010, <>.

[6] De Oliveira, “Abortion Debate Weights on Presidential Election.”

[7] Andrew Downie, “Abortion Debate Heats Up Brazil Election,” Christian Science Monitor, 15 October 2010, accessed 9 November 2010, <>.

[8] “Gloves Off in Brazil’s Presidential Runoff,” Euronews, 11 October 2010, accessed 10 November 2010, <>.

[9] Downie, “Abortion Debate Heats Up Brazil Election.”

[10] Pyne, “Abortion Becomes an Issue in Brazil’s Presidential Elections.”

[11] Gillian Kane, “Dirty Campaigning, Brazilian Style.”

[12] Ibid.