Brazil’s Supreme Court on Friday began public hearings on scrapping highly restrictive abortion laws that have pushed large numbers of women to seek clandestine procedures.
More than 50 representatives from health, religious, academic and non-governmental areas were testifying before the court in Brasilia in hearings due to continue Monday on whether to ease restrictions in Latin America’s biggest country.
Currently, abortions are only allowed in cases of rape, danger to the mother or if the fetus suffers the fatal disorder anencephaly.
The proposal to allow abortions for women up to 12 weeks pregnant is opposed by the Catholic and many evangelical churches, but comes just as neighboring Argentina’s Senate is about to vote on a similar measure.
Breaking the abortion law in Brazil can lead to sentences of up to three years in prison.
However, Maria de Fatima, a doctor with the health ministry, testified that even so one of five Brazilian women have had an abortion. She said that every year 230 women die and another 250,000 are hospitalized after complications in illegal procedures.
The public debate in the Supreme Court, coming two months before contentious presidential elections, is eventually to be followed by a ruling, but no date has been set for the vote.
Among the leading presidential candidates, right-winger Jair Bolsonaro is strongly anti-abortion, while environmentalist Marina Silva, who belongs to an evangelical church, has called for a referendum on the topic.
This week, Brazil’s Catholic bishops reiterated their position that life is “unconditional” and “should be respected and defended at every stage and condition that human takes.”
Latin America is a region with generally tight abortion laws. It is legal in Cuba and Uruguay and in Mexico City, but otherwise far more restricted.