In Brazil, abortion is banned in almost all cases and is punishable by up to three years in prison. But that may change as the country’s supreme court considers decriminalizing abortion through the 12th week of pregnancy.

Hearings on the issue began on Friday and continued on Monday, with testimony from doctors, specialists and religious leaders. The hearings have been extremely contentious: Outside the supreme court in Sao Paulo on Friday, women donned red robes resembling those worn on the hit TV show, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in favor of decriminalization. Meanwhile, #AbortionisaCrime trended on Twitter, and churches sounded their bells in protest.

A demonstrator holds a plastic doll shaped like a fetus during a Catholic church event against the legalization of abortion, in Rio de Janeiro. (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)
A demonstrator holds a plastic doll shaped like a fetus during a Catholic church event against the legalization of abortion, in Rio de Janeiro. (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)

A majority of Brazilians remains staunchly against the legalization of abortion, but polls show a growing number of them believe women who have abortions should not go to jail. The number of Brazilians who support decriminalization grew from 23 percent in 2016 to 36 percent in 2017. At the same time, 1 in 5 Brazilian women younger than age of 40 has undergone an abortion, according to a 2016 poll.

Debora Diniz, an anthropology professor and activist who spoke at the hearing, received death threats in the days before her testimony and had to be placed in a witness-protection program.

“This topic needs to be addressed and confronted. It won’t be silenced with hate or threats,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Shifting head winds across conservative Latin America have given many activists hope that Brazil could loosen restrictions. In 2006, Colombia lifted a blanket ban on abortion. Chile followed suit last year, and Argentina’s Senate is voting this week on a bill that would legalize the procedure through the 14th week of pregnancy.

But the opposition to decriminalizing abortion remains stark. Professor Hermes Rodrigues Nery, the president of the Pro-Life and Pro-Family Association, testified on Friday that rather than loosening abortion restrictions, Brazil needs to deal with the root causes of the poverty that, he said, prompt poor women to seek abortions.

“It is a false solution; for where we should be fighting the causes of poverty, we chose to fight the poor,” he said. “It is a battle between those with power and those without, who need support.”

And even as the supreme court considers the issue, evangelical Christian members of Brazil’s Congress have been pushing a bill that would make abortions illegal in all circumstances. The bill was approved by a congressional committee last November but has yet to be passed by both houses.

Jair Bolsonaro, the leading conservative presidential candidate in Brazil’s upcoming elections, is against abortion rights and has pledged to veto any attempts by Congress to decriminalize the procedure.

Brazil’s Ministry of Health declined to take a position but said in a statement that “the illegality [of abortion] does not prevent it from occurring, however it drastically affects access to a secure procedure, increasing the risk of complications and avoidable maternal death.”

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