International news roundup: Updates on Brazil, Circumcision, and UN Commission on the Status of Women
Brazilian doctors’ group urges decriminalization of abortion
As in many countries in Latin America, abortion is extremely restricted in Brazil. Currently, women can only legally have an abortion if the pregnancy results from rape, if their lives are threatened by the pregnancy, or if the fetus has a brain anomaly. Despite these restrictions, abortion is widespread, with an estimated 1 million Brazilian women undergoing abortions yearly. As in many countries where abortion is restricted, women with money can still get safe abortion care, while poor women must resort to unsafe abortions. The end result is an estimated 200,000 women per year hospitalized due to complications of unsafe abortions, making unsafe abortion the third most common reason for obstetrical hospital admissions and one of the top causes of maternal mortality in the country.
A group representing Brazilian doctors, the Federal Council of Medicine, is now urging federal lawmakers to allow abortions on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The group has noted the strong impact unsafe abortion has had on public health in Brazil and also pointed out that current abortion laws in the country “are inconsistent with humanitarian commitments” and act paradoxically against “social responsibility and international treaties signed by the Brazilian government.” The Council represents 400,000 physicians; let’s hope they get more attention than the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, which has already registered its distaste for this development.
No surgeon needed with new circumcision device
What do circumcisions have to do with abortion? Not a whole lot. But you may or may not know that circumcision does have a lot to do with reproductive justice for men and women living in countries with high HIV prevalence. Male circumcision, when performed by a skilled provider, reduces a man’s risk of acquiring HIV from an HIV-positive woman by about 60%. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to work the other way; that is, circumcision of HIV-positive men does not protect their female partners. However, by protecting men from acquiring HIV, their partners are likewise protected. Because many women do not have control over condom use in their relationships, and because try as we might we are still nowhere near 100% condom use, offering voluntary circumcision to men is one of the most promising interventions available to decrease the spread of HIV.
Despite this, scale up of voluntary male circumcision has been slow. Although there are many reasons for this, the skilled health worker shortage in low-income countries is a major barrier to increased implementation of male circumcision. The New York Times reported this month on the PrePex device, an inexpensive tool that, after being left on for about one week, causes the foreskin to drop off. Best of all, applying it takes less time than surgery and no surgeon is needed; nurses and medical officers can learn to use the device quickly.
UN Commission on the Status of Women makes important strides
Although some activists feared that, as happened last year, no outcome document would be agreed upon after this year’s Commission due to attempts from conservative actors (such as the Holy See, Iran and Syria) to derail negotiations, in the end a document was produced (see a draft here).
In addition to reaffirming important previous international agreements made in Beijing and Cairo, the document condemns violence against women, calls upon states to protect women and girls from violence, promotes education for all as a human right, and recognizes the need for women to be fully integrated into economic and social life. It also states that women who have been raped have the right to emergency contraception and safe abortion where permitted by local laws.
I of course would have liked to see more about the right to contraception (which is a right for all women, not exclusively those who have been raped) and safe abortion regardless of context or local laws, but with conservative forces working for months behind the scenes to prevent any progress, I consider this a small step forward.