|Dilma Rousseff may have failed to win in the first round of voting because she favoured legalising abortion [Reuters]
The issue of abortion has turned into a weapon that threatens to take away votes from the candidates in the campaign for the second round of presidential elections in Brazil, with conservative religious groups using it as a bargaining chip in exchange for their support.
But this situation does not reflect the position of the majority of voters, who are in favour of the decriminalisation of abortion, say analysts and representatives of the women's movement, which criticise the use of women's bodies as a means of electoral pressure.
The question of whether abortion, which is currently punishable by up to 10 years in prison in Brazil, should be legalised has become a flashpoint issue in the campaign for the October 31 runoff vote between Dilma Rousseff of the governing Workers Party (PT) and her rival José Serra of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB).
Earlier indications that Rousseff favoured the legalisation of abortion were seen as the main reason she failed to win outright in the first round of voting, on October 3.
As in most of Latin America, abortion is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape or when the mother's life is in danger.
A decisive number of voters defected from the Rousseff camp to Green Party candidate Marina Silva, an evangelical Christian.
Silva, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's (no relation) former environment minister, is opposed to abortion and proposed holding a referendum on whether or not it should be legalised.
The Green candidate's strong performance was the big surprise on October 3, when she took nearly 20 per cent of the vote, behind Rousseff, who won 47 per cent, and Serra, who garnered close to 33 per cent.
According to a Vox Populi poll published Wednesday by the IG Internet portal, Rousseff now has 48 percent support, compared to Serra's 40 per cent.
In this month's campaign, Rousseff and Serra are presenting themselves as champions of the moral crusade against the decriminalisation of abortion, even though in the past both of them have expressed openness to women's right to choose.
Beatriz Galli with Ipas Brazil -- the national branch of Ipas, an international network that works for the sexual and reproductive rights of women worldwide -- told IPS she regrets that the debate has been reduced "to being against or in favour of abortion or in favour of life".
The PT candidate had earlier stated that progress should be made towards the decriminalisation of abortion. But now her web site emphasises that she is "personally against abortion".
Alongside a photo of the recent baptism of her first grandson, she states that "it would be odd for me to be in favour of abortion after this manifestation of life in the bosom of my family".
Rousseff says abortion is "violence against women," although she adds that if she is elected, her government "will not deal with it as an issue for the police, but as a public health and social issue".
Serra has followed a similar line. While in 1998, as health minister under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003), he helped secure the approval of public health guidelines for the legal practice of abortion in cases of rape, he now warns that the legalisation of abortion would lead to "carnage."
He has also used campaign slogans describing himself as "a man who was never caught up in scandals and who has always been consistent, condemning abortion and defending life" or as "a family man," in an attempt to strike a contrast with Rousseff, who is divorced and who took part as a young woman in the armed struggle against the 1964-1985 dictatorship.
But Galli said "This is a false dilemma, because the central issue is whether the state should criminalise something that is a public health question, placing women's health and lives at risk because it forces them to seek clandestine abortions."
According to conservative estimates from Brazil's national health system, the Sistema Único de Saúde, at least 1.5 million illegal abortions a year are performed in this country of 192 million people, and 250,000 women are hospitalised for abortion-related complications, which are one of the leading causes of maternal mortality.
Galli argued that an issue involving the human rights of women cannot be reduced to a religious question.
A study by University of Brasilia professor Débora Diniz, an anthropologist and a researcher at the Institute of Bioethics, Human Rights and Gender, found that one out of five women interviewed had had an abortion before the age of 40.
And of the respondents who had undergone an abortion, 88 percent said they were religious -- a revealing figure in the country with the largest number of Catholics in the world, and where evangelical churches are growing at breakneck speed.
"These women's stories cannot be ignored because of the frenzied race for the votes of religious communities that consider abortion an abominable crime," Diniz wrote in an article.
"Abortion has become a bargaining chip to win votes," she added, maintaining that the political concessions made by the two candidates are "threats to democracy" because they compromise the principle of the separation of church and state.
Guacira César de Oliveira, director and founder of the Feminist Centre for Studies and Advisory Services (CFEMEA), told IPS that a biased analysis has been made, which "requires the two candidates to take a certain stance against abortion, as if that were the only way to win the elections."
Oliveira blames this situation on "an offensive by the conservative right and religious fundamentalists" which has managed to put abortion at the centre of the campaign, ahead of other issues that also contributed to Rousseff's failure to win the 50 per cent of the vote she needed to avoid a runoff.
Analysts point, for example, to corruption allegations against the Lula administration, which Rousseff formed part of from early 2003 to last March, first as energy minister and then as chief of staff -- especially an influence-peddling scandal that forced Erenice Guerra, who succeeded Rousseff as chief of staff and was one of her closest aides, to resign.
Oliveira said the "demonisation" of abortion in the campaign did not reflect the opinion of the majority of voters. She pointed out that many women resort to unsafe abortion "in order to be able to determine how many children they want and are able to have.
"Women's wombs must not be a bargaining chip in these elections," she complained.
Carmen Silva, an educator at the SOS Corpo Feminist Institute for Democracy, agrees that what is happening is a manipulation by "religious fundamentalism," which has grown worldwide, and which in Brazil has been associated with "the big media, rightwing politicians and members of the military nostalgic for the military dictatorship."
Oliveira and Silva both stressed that abortion has crowded out other women's issues, such as political participation, assistance for victims of violence, and equal employment opportunities.
"With so many issues that are crucial to democracy and fundamental rights, like education, public security or social security, it's strange that there is an effort to make sure that the new president of Brazil will be determined by his or her position on abortion," Diniz stated.
This article first appeared on the Inter Press Service News Agency.