Using Access to Information to Advance Women’s Health Rights: The Case of Legal Abortion in Brazil

Bárbara Paes

The International Conference on Human Rights, held in Tehran in 1968, established that people have the right to receive adequate education and information related to their sexual and reproductive rights[1]. Hence, all countries must promote, in every situation, the people’s right to be informed about those issues. Nevertheless, even in countries where legal abortion is guaranteed like Brazil, women still face major restrictions on this right’s fulfilment.

In Brazil, abortion is legal under three circumstances: when the pregnancy is resulting from rape; when the mother’s life is endangered; and when the fetus is anencephalic.[2] However, few are the women who know or are informed of this. It is estimated that almost half of the Brazilian population (48%) are unaware of the situations where abortion is permitted[3].

Apart from women’s unawareness of their rights, there is yet another layer of misinformation: women and the population in general do not know in which medical facilities the procedure can be performed legally. Currently, there is no public, easily accessible and widely publicized list of the public hospitals and maternities that perform legal abortions. With few exceptions, it is difficult to obtain this information through official sources. This is very worrisome and undermines women’s sexual and reproductive health rights, since studies show that 95% of Brazilian women are unaware of the municipal services offered to help those who suffered sexual violence[4].

Another dimension of the problem is that, not only are citizens having trouble accessing information about legal abortion, but public health professionals and facilities are facing it as well. For instance, a survey conducted by the Non-Governmental Organization Catholic Women for the Right to Decide[5] shows how misinformation on legal abortion in Brazil affects public personnel. Even in facilities that legally perform the procedure, it is not hard to find employees that cannot deliver information on legal abortion or that even mislead patients, providing them wrong information.

According to the Brazilian legislation, any healthcare facility that provides gynecological and obstetrical services should perform the procedure. However, the reality is quite different. In July 2016, ARTICLE 19[6] used the Brazilian Access to Information Law and asked the Ministry of Health how many and where were located the facilities that provided legal abortion services in Brazil[7]. The institution responded that “all hospital facilities that provide gynecological/obstetrical services must provide medical care for women who demand legal abortion”. Nonetheless, a study ordered by the Secretariat of Policies for Women in 2015 stated that, in reality, not all of these facilities are prepared to perform the procedure and many of them actually refuse to do so, even for cases considered in the law[8].

We also found that the health services that actually perform the procedure are unevenly located throughout the country. The government of Roraima, the state that concentrates the highest rate of rapes per 100.000 people, does not have any facilities that execute legal abortions[9]. Women who live in states where hospitals do not provide this service find themselves in an utterly concerning scenario.

It is evident that the lack of information on legal abortion is a huge violation of women’s right to healthcare: many women end up pursuing dangerous and illegal methods to terminate their pregnancy, resorting to frequently unsafe procedures or carrying on an unwanted pregnancy that might be potentially dangerous. The National Abortion Research, organized by Anis Instituto de Bioética and the Univeristy of Brasilia, shows that over half a million abortions were performed in Brazil in 2015. Most of them are done illegally and half of the women who have them need to be admitted in a hospital subsequently[10].

From our perspective, there are minimum steps to be taken in order to guarantee women’s sexual and reproductive rights. First of all, it is of the utmost importance that the Brazilian government improves the availability of information concerning legal abortion and ensures all women can access the necessary health services. This includes publishing easy-to-understand and accessible information, disclosing in which cases abortion is allowed and a detailed list of medical facilities performing the procedure. This is crucial for preventing that more women in Brazil, who are in the situations considered within the law, will keep resorting to illegal abortions and putting their lives at risk.


[1]“Reproductive Rights”, United Nations.

[2]According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anencephaly is a serious birth defect in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull.

[3]Panorama do Aborto Legal no Brasil, Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir, Sao Paulo, 2006.

[4]Panorama do Aborto Legal no Brasil, Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir, Sao Paulo, 2006.

[5]Panorama do Aborto Legal no Brasil, Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir, Sao Paulo, 2006.

[6]ARTICLE 19 is a NGO founded in 1987. It is registered and regulated in the UK (charity number 327421), Bangladesh, Brazil, Kenya, Mexico, Senegal, Tunisia and the USA. It envisages a world where people are free to speak their opinions, to participate in decision-making and to make informed choices about their lives.

[7]To learn more about this and other information requests, go to

[8]T. Abrantes, Hospitais barram aborto até em casos previstos por lei, EXAME, June 21st 2016. e-em-casos-previstos-por-lei

[9]For more Information, read: M. Timoteo Da Costa, Brasil tem apenas 65 serviços para aborto legal, O GLOBO, November 06, 2013.



Photo: InsideSources


About the Author

Bárbara Paes

Bárbara is a project assistant at Article 19, Brazil, where she works on transparency, access to information and gender. She has a bachelor degree in International Relations from Sao Paulo University and is currently studying her masters in Cultural, Educational and Racial Relations.

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