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Using Video for Policy Change


Organization Producing the Videos: 
ANIS/Instituto de Bioética 

Country of Production: 

Issue Addressed: 
Safe and legal abortion, health, women’s rights 

Intended Use of the Video: 
Influence legal decision 

Target Audiences: 
Supreme Court Justices, media and general public in Brazil

Uma História Severina/Severina’s Story (22.31 min video)
Quem São Elas/Four Women (19.54 min video)

The Issue

Adopted in 1940, Brazil's criminal code makes abortion illegal except in cases of rape and when the life of the woman is at risk. According to the World Health Organization, Brazil has the fourth highest rate of anencephaly pregnancy cases, where a severe fetal anomaly causes the fetus to lack proper brain formation. There is no chance for the baby to survive after birth into infancy.  An infant born with anencephaly will usually be born blind, deaf and unconscious. If an anencephalic infant is not stillborn, the baby will often die within hours or days.

The psychological and physical effects of carrying an anencephalic pregnancy can contribute to mental health disorders and physical health risks. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has found that restrictions on access to safe and legal abortion may give rise to situations that constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, including when a woman is forced to carry an unviable pregnancy to term.

In June 2004, ANIS Instituto de Bioética and the Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores na Saúde-CNTS (National Trade Union of Health Workers) filed a case arguing that forcing a woman to carry to term an anencephalic fetus amounts to a human rights violation and termination of the pregnancy should not be criminalized. The then Supreme Court Rapporteur for the case granted an injunction allowing health professionals to perform this medical procedure without judicial authorization. However, the Supreme Court overturned this decision in October 2004 before the merits of the case could be considered, creating a legal limbo that lasted for seven years.

The Organization

Founded in 1999, ANIS is a feminist organization with a proven track record in social research, advocacy, strategic litigation and communication campaigns around human rights. ANIS specifically focuses on sexual rights, reproductive rights, disabilities and mental health, as well as violence and criminal and juvenile justice systems. ANIS brings these issues into the public debate using both traditional and social media by producing weekly short videos and posts. ANIS created a production company called Imagens Livres (Free Images) and to date, has produced seven human rights documentaries which have won a total of 60 awards.

Why Video?

Previous to the injunction granted by the Supreme Court, few journalists reported on the issue of anencephalic pregnancies, but the ruling spurred many unprecedented stories in the mainstream media. Additionally, during the proceedings, the Supreme Court Justice Cezar Peluzo exposed his ignorance of the situation by asking, “Who are these women [who want and seek abortions]?” He then opposed the injunction stating that: “suffering on its own does not degrade human dignity, it is part of human life.” In response to Peluzo’s question, ANIS decided to produce two documentaries to highlight the plight of these women and to put a human face on their cases.

This case study focuses on those two productions (Uma História SeverinaSeverina’s Story and Quem São Elas/Four Women) which, over eight years, were used as tools in the fight for a favorable Supreme Court ruling around allowing for abortion in cases of an anencephalic pregnancy. While there were no specific safety and security issues for producing the two documentaries, there were concerns for and from the women due to the stigma around pregnancy terminations.

Advocacy Objectives and Target Audiences

The goal was to decriminalize abortion in cases of anencephalic pregnancies, which required a decision from the Supreme Court.  To this end, the primary audience was the Supreme Court Justices. The secondary audience was the media and the general public, which in turn could influence the Supreme Court. This was especially important as it was the first time that the Supreme Court had created mechanisms to actively seek opinions and expertise beyond the juridical realm.

The Videos

VIDEO 1: Uma História Severina/Severina’s Story (2005)

This documentary tells the story of 26-year-old Severina who, within her first trimester, was diagnosed with an anencephalic pregnancy. She was in a hospital in the city of Recife awaiting her procedure when the Supreme Court revoked the injunction. Doctors watched the announcement on TV and sent Severina back to her rural hometown where she had to seek local authorization for the termination of the pregnancy. The film documents a woman of limited means navigating a complex legal system. After four months, she finally secures the approval to be induced and she goes through a stillbirth. ANIS collected a total of 32 hours of footage and the video took two years to be produced.

VIDEO 2: Quem São Elas/Four Women (2006)

In response to Supreme Court Justice’s question regarding which women were affected by the ruling, ANIS spent 15 days searching public hospital records and identified 58 women who had benefited from the four month injunction. ANIS selected four of their stories to be featured in the documentary it produced, Four Women, which shares the positive stories of women who were able to follow their wish to terminate their pregnancy.

Impact Distribution Strategy

This case on anencephalic pregnancies and another on stem cell research were the first two instances in which Brazil’s Supreme Court held public hearings and listened to experts before making a decision. These hearings and the videos produced by ANIS served as a source of technical information beyond the juridical realm, as well as a barometer of public opinion. Within this context, Four Women was screened on September 4, 2008, before Brazil’s Supreme Court as a direct response to Supreme Court Justice Cezar Peluzo’s question four years earlier. Moreover, experts who participated in hearings quoted information from Severina’s Story. Finally, from 2005 to 2010, both films were screened in dozens of film festivals and were cited over 100 times by major newspaper and news outlets in Brazil, ensuring that they had a major impact on public opinion throughout the time it took for the case to go through the Supreme Court proceedings.

Impact and Outcomes

In 2012, seven years after he first asked about the women who seek to terminate pregnancies, Supreme Court Justice Peluzo personally met Severina. She was present at the hearing, over which he was presiding, that would issue a decision on termination of pregnancy in cases of anencephalic pregnancies. In a vote of eight to two, the Supreme Court issued a favorable decision that today ensures women in Brazil can opt to terminate an anencephalic pregnancy without lengthy judicial review. Moreover, another Supreme Court Justice alludes to ANIS’s documentary Severina’s Story in her opinion, where she speaks of women’s experiences and refers to the film by saying:

The right to health is threatened when women are obliged to keep themselves pregnant, even when it’s against their will, after the diagnosis of anencephaly. Most women opt for terminating the pregnancy after the confirmation of this diagnosis

(Diniz; Brum, 2004).

Impact & Outcomes image: Isaac Ribeiro (license)
Advocacy & Audience image: Valentina Fraiz/Anis.
All other images: ANIS/Instituto de Bioética