Abortion becomes an issue in Brazil's presidential elections

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Today Pope Benedict called on Catholic bishops in Brazil to condemn abortion. That's ahead of the country's presidential runoff this weekend. Abortion has become a key issue in the election. Abortion's mostly illegal in Brazil. And it's never been center stage in a presidential election before. But this time, both candidates are touting their credentials as abortion foes. Observers say that's in part a testament to the rising political influence of conservative religious groups. Solana Pyne reports from Rio de Janeiro.

SOLANA PYNE: A dozen worshipers stand in front of folding chairs at the Pentecostal Church of Divine Unction. The Tuesday night gathering in this storefront church is one of three evangelical services being held simultaneously in a three-block radius.


PYNE: Pastor Fatima de Lima says she's looking for a larger space to accommodate her expanding congregation. Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing religious movement in this Roman Catholic country.

PEDRO CUNCA: There are so many new churches that they are very fragmented.

PYNE: Social scientist Pedro Cunca says this year, for the first time, these conservative churches managed to come together to press a national political agenda.

CUNCA: They establish a common platform, it's the novelty.

PYNE: And they've helped make abortion a frontburner issue. It's illegal here except when a woman's been raped or her health is in danger. But Presidential frontrunner Dilma Rousseff has spoken in the past about easing restrictions. Carlos Santana is a political scientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He says evangelicals and other conservative groups began a campaign of emails, pamphlets and sermons, saying Dilma Rousseff doesn't respect religion.

CARLOS SANTANA: There was a very strong defamation campaign against Dilma. Abortion and religion issues in some sense define the second round in this election.

PYNE: Analysts say the rumor campaign probably cost Rousseff the votes needed to win outright in the first round. And it drew attention to the growing influence of evangelical groups in Brazil, says Riordan Roett. He's director of the Latin American Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University.

RIORDAN ROETT: The more conservative political and social elements are now increasingly political and politicized. Brazil is behind the United States, but if the trend is clear over the next couple of electoral cycles in Brazil, I think this issue is going to become more of a cutting edge social policy question.

PYNE: A recent poll suggests 71% of Brazilians support keeping abortion illegal. Yet in practice the procedure remains common. The Ministry of Health estimates that a third of all pregnancies in Brazil end in abortion. Women's organizations say at least 200 women die every year from complications from illegal abortions. In the past, Dilma Rousseff called this a public health crisis and raised the issue of decriminalization. But for this election, she reversed course.


PYNE: Dilma is an honest woman who respects life and all religions. That was the message in this Rousseff commercial that ran for the runoff. Rousseff insists that she personally opposes abortion, and vowed in an open letter not to propose legalizing abortion. Her opponent, Jose Serra, jumped on that.


PYNE: At a debate on Monday, Serra accused Rousseff of flip-flopping.


PYNE: But in what may be a sign of just how schizophrenic the abortion issue can be here, Serra's focus on abortion backfired when evidence surfaced suggesting that his wife had an abortion. David Fleischer is a political science professor at the University of Brasilia.

DAVID FLEISCHER: Mrs. Serra's former students, ballet students, who said she had told us back several years ago that she had had an abortion in the United States. And so that was a very, very bad slam against Serra, that if his own wife had had an abortion, how can he accuse the other side of being pro abortion. It totally wiped out the accusation.

PYNE: Serra's campaign denies the abortion allegation. But in the end, the biggest losers may be the women's groups pushing for easing restrictions. Kauara Rodrigues of the Feminist Center for Studies and Advisory Services says the evangelical bloc in congress gained 28 new representatives in the first round of elections.


PYNE: For the next four years, she says, we'll face some problems. But she pointed to one small success. She says for the moment Brazil is focusing on an issue that's all too often ignored. For The World, I'm Solana Pyne in Rio de Janeiro.