International Women's Day 2024

Brazil’s Christian Feminists

Catholic and evangelical women are organizing to defend women’s bodily autonomy.

Brazil’s Christian Feminists

Simony dos Anjos is a member of the Network of Black Evangelical Women and defends women’s bodily autonomy (Credit: Folha de S.Paulo)

We are sharing this article, originally published in Folha de S. Paulo in Brazil, as part of our collaboration with the Spark News Towards Equality Initiative for International Women’s Day.

Well, it wasn't overnight that Christian feminist and sociologist Maria José Rosado decided to challenge the Vatican's historical position. But one story impacted her more than any other.

She had already helped found Catholics for the Right to Decide, an NGO that since 1993 questions ecclesiastical laws regarding reproductive rights and women's autonomy over their bodies, when she learned about the story of a woman treated at São Paulo’s Jabaquara Hospital. It was there, in 1989, that the administration of then-mayor Luiza Erundina began a pioneering legal abortion program in Latin America.

This patient who had such an impact on her had shared, in an interview, that she was already the mother of two teenagers. “She carried both of them with great desire. What was inside her were human beings that she wanted to bring into the world.” But one early morning, on her way to work, she was raped and became pregnant. "She said that what was inside her was not a human being, it was something else that she just wanted to have removed."

Unlike in Argentina, Mexico and Colombia, which have decriminalized abortion in an increasing number of scenarios, Brazil still only allows abortion in three specific situations.The interruption of a potentially life-threatening pregnancy or a pregnancy resulting from a rape has been allowed since 1940 in the Brazilian Penal Code. In 2012, the Supreme Federal Court (STF) also decriminalized abortion procedures if the fetus is anencephalic. However, in recent years, even these three exceptions have been targeted by Brazilian conservative movements, many with strong religious motivation.

A 2023 survey conducted by Datafolha shows that opposition to abortion is growing, especially among evangelical believers —54 percent completely disagree with the statement “abortion should be a woman's right,” compared with 39% of the national average. Catholics respond in similar percentages, but opposition increases if non-practicing Catholics are excluded and more militant catholic groups are considered .

This is in this context that Rosado and the evangelicals Simony dos Anjos and Bebel Lourenço come in, part of a minority that identifies with progressive groups that are shunned by Brazilian Christian circles.

As part of the Evangelicals for Gender Equality movement, Lourenço found herself in a double bind when revealing her faith to feminist groups and presenting herself as a feminist in church. Both frowned upon the other part of her identity, which makes no sense to her. “My faith has never conflicted with my social values. On the contrary, the irrefutable truth of salvific love in Christ has always led me to confront gender, class, and race disparities.”

It is no different when it comes to abortion, “dogmatically wrapped in guilt and condemnation towards women,” even though “none of these arguments have a biblical basis,” she says. “There is no moral or spiritual condemnation of pregnancy termination described in the biblical books. What exists is the appropriation of the romanticized pro-life discourse, in favor of 'family,' but neglecting raped teenage mothers and high-risk pregnancies, as well as other critical situations triggered by unplanned pregnancies.”

For Lourenço, it's as simple as this: “My uterus is secular, it should not be under the tutelage of the State, much less the church.”

Not that this implies an easy decision for any woman. “No one is in favor of abortion,” says anthropologist dos Anjos, a member of the Network of Black Evangelical Women. But let's be realistic: We are facing a public health epidemic, and discussing whether a cluster of cells in the very early stages of pregnancy has as much life as a fetus about to be born “is a way to divert from the real debate.The Bible should not guide public health policies. While we are here having theological debates, women are having unsafe abortions.”

For Rosado, the so-called pro-life group has a strategy of “confusing and treating everything as if it were the same”—the newly fertilized embryo, the fetus in an advanced stage, and the newborn baby. “The photos they bring to events are absolute lies, they show plastic fetuses to say that this is what is in the mother's womb after one month of pregnancy. If neither science nor religion can establish an unquestionable line as to when life begins, the government must define something that creates public policies for both women who want to have an abortion and those who want to carry a pregnancy to term.”

“I often tell the story of a young woman who discovered she was carrying an anencephalic fetus, ” says Rosado. “She decided she wanted to continue the pregnancy and that right was respected. The child was born, and she buried him.”

She says that a woman who chooses abortion is not respected, even when the procedure is authorized by law. That the law is questioned by a portion of the Christian community, who believes that a fetus should not pay for the crimes of the father in the case of rape, for example.

In 2023, Globo, the country’s largest television network, premiered Vai na Fé, its first soap opera with an evangelical protagonist. One sceneshows a pregnant woman who is a victim of sexual abuse; she resorts to an illegal clinic after the healthcare system fails her—and ends up being arrested.

In another scene, the daughter of the main character declares herself against abortion even in cases of rape. Another character argues that it is torture to prevent a woman from being forced to carry in her womb the reminder of something so atrocious. She does not know that the young woman opposed to abortion is herself the daughter of a woman who was drugged and raped, which makes her reflect that if her mother had had an abortion, she would not have had the chance to exist.

Christian feminists recognize the complexity embedded in a dispute that is reduced to an ideological clash. What is not acceptable, they say, is to be hypocritical and present oneself as a pro-life advocate while disregarding fundamental initiatives to protect women who want to give birth.

Dos Anjos cites lawmakers who supported the 2017 Labor Reform, which required pregnant and lactating women to obtain a medical certificate in order to be excluded from hazardous activities. Two years later, the Supreme Court overturned the requirement.

Many of these politicians, she adds, support the Statute of the Unborn, a bill that equates the embryo with a person already born—which could result in the abolition of non-criminal abortions in the country.

“I would much rather see this ‘defender of the unborn’ defend the pregnant woman who does not eat well, who does not have proper prenatal care,”says the anthropologist. “Moral terrorism makes women feel extremely guilty and judged.”

We are sharing this article, originally published in Folha de S. Paulo in Brazil, as part of our collaboration with the Spark News Towards Equality Initiative for International Women’s Day.Well, it wasn't overnight that Christian feminist and sociologist Maria José Rosado decided to challenge the Vatican's historical position. But one story impacted her more than any other.She had already...