A São Paulo anti-abortion centre has forged lucrative ties to leading far-right political figures

13 de abril de 2023
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”PREGNANT?” scream the posters on São Paulo’s metro system, used by five million commuters every day. “Are you confused or completely alone…What are your options?” The urgent questions are superimposed on the silhouette of a woman’s face. Below is the logo of an organisation known as Cervi (Centre for Life Restructuring), followed by two phone numbers and the invitation “Call Us”.

Cervi has operated across Brazil for two decades and is linked to the Pregnancy Resource Center (PRC), a US network. Since the 1970s, the PRC has helped create so-called ‘crisis pregnancy centres’ across the US and in several other countries. The crisis pregnancy centres, many of which are linked to large evangelical Christian networks such as Heartbeat International and CareNet, pose as abortion service providers. However, their real mission is to dissuade women and pregnant people from having an abortion using tactics such as disinformation and emotional pressure, as a 2020 openDemocracy investigation revealed.

Much the same thing happens for those who read the Cervi posters on the São Paulo metro and ring the phone numbers. They are invited to an in-person meeting with a social worker or psychologist, who attempts to convince them to go ahead with the pregnancy using disinformation and promises of support.

According to Cervi’s website, the group was founded at the invitation of the Pregnancy Resource Center (PRC)

Cervi’s website describes the organisation as a welfare centre that offers “comprehensive [care] to women and family members who are facing an unwanted pregnancy, are victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, or have experienced abortion.” It claims to have assisted 18,000 people by 2020, of which 6,000 were women, but does not specify how.

Cervi has been heavily involved in campaigning against abortion rights in Brazil. In the federal capital Brasília, Cervi members have organised meetings and public hearings on women’s issues and reproductive rights. It also carries out extensive fundraising activities.

An investigation by independent outlet Agência Pública has now revealed Cervi received more than 170,000 Brazilian reais (£26,900) in public funding in the past four years. Of that, 100,000 Brazilian reais (£15,800) came from the National Department of Women’s Policy, which is part of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights created by former president Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro named conservative evangelical pastor Damares Alves, now a senator, to head the ministry.

Strategic disinformation

Agência Pública’s reporters contacted Cervi on the phone numbers listed on the São Paulo metro posters. An undercover reporter booked an appointment and was told by a Cervi employee that this “is not an abortion clinic” but a space for women in vulnerable situations. The staffer said that Cervi helps women who have experienced violence or an unexpected pregnancy, or gone through an abortion. It also offers things like baby clothes and food staples.

The Cervi employee spoke about pregnant women who decided not to have an abortion after visiting the centre and gave our reporter false information about abortion procedures.

“There are different procedures and none of them are safe. You run the risk of losing your uterus. The risk you run is not only for the little one, you’re not only going to harm the baby, but your body will also be affected,” the staffer said.

She added that abortion “is not legal [in Brazil], even in cases of rape”. This is incorrect. Brazilian law has three exemptions for abortion: for rape victims; when a woman’s life is at risk, and if the foetus develops anencephaly, a severe birth defect.

The Cervi social worker claimed she was not trying to brainwash Agência Pública’s reporter, nor trying to convince them to see their supposed pregnancy through. However, she constantly asked our reporter to reflect more on the issue and presented them with a box filled with dolls that represented the foetus at different ages and sizes as the pregnancy progressed.

One in seven women around the age of 40 has had at least one abortion, according to Brazil’s National Abortion Survey, published in March. The survey data shows abortion is a relatively commonplace event and underlines the importance of treating it as a public health issue.

Gynaecologist and obstetrician Jefferson Drezett, who led care and support services for victims of sexual violence and carried out legal abortions for 24 years at the Pérola Byington Hospital in São Paulo, says it is a clear “abuse of their function” for government departments to fund anti-abortion organisations that promote misinformation.

“Whether it is with the correct information or with incorrect information, nothing can justify the Brazilian state financing an organisation whose principal aim is to not treat abortion as a public health issue, but rather as a religious moral issue”. He added that misinformation by groups like Cervi is “purposely deployed to inflict even more suffering and fear on women”.

Far-right links

For years, Cervi has been forging close political ties with figures on Brazil’s right and far-right, such as the former women’s minister Cristiane Britto, former São Paulo state deputy Janaína Paschoal and federal deputy Chris Tonietto. Britto succeeded Bolsonaro’s first women’s minister Alves, who left office to run for the senate seat in 2022. Paschoal has publicly spoken out against the decriminalisation of abortion in Brazil. Tonietto is a member of Bolsonaro’s political party.

Cervi’s founder and president Rosemeire Santiago has been crucial in the organisation’s cultivation of links with the far-right. Last year, she made an unsuccessful bid for state deputy, running as “São Paulo’s pro-life [candidate]” and winning strong support from Paschoal as well as the high-profile conservative lawyer and professor Ives Gandra Martins. During the campaign, Santiago took a fervently pro-life stance, argued that life begins at the moment of conception and spoke in favour of the Estatuto do Nascituro or Statute of the Unborn Child. This proposed legislation seeks to grant embryos and foetuses personhood and rights and would lead to the criminalisation of abortion under any circumstances.

Paschoal was one of the legislators who secured budgetary funding for Cervi. In 2021, she allocated 70,000 Brazilian reais (£11,100) to Cervi through the São Paulo’s government for the “procurement of equipment”, according to data from the state’s Transparency Portal.

A Cervi social media post celebrates its partnership with former state deputy Janaína Paschoal (centre). Cervi president Rosemeire Santiago is on her right

The São Paulo legislature’s website also lists other – ultimately unsuccessful – proposals by three former state deputies in recent years to award parliamentary funding to Cervi.

Cervi’s links with Gandra Martins and other members of his family, such as his daughter Angela, are also noteworthy. The Gandras have ties to the Opus Dei, the ultraconservative Catholic organisation, and are opposed to abortion under any circumstances, including the exceptions provided for in Brazilian law.

Print de publicação do Instagram do Cervi, mostrando a Presidente do centro uma mulher de cabelos curtos azuis e Angela Gandra que é loira, veste preto e usa óculos.
Cervi president Rosemeire Santiago (left) and Angela Gandra. Santiago has met members of Brazilian influential Gandra family several time over the past few years

Angela Gandra, who was appointed national secretary for the family in the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights in 2019, was a leading anti-abortion voice in the Bolsonaro administration. According to the former secretary’s publicly available schedule, Cervi’s Santiago contacted her in an official capacity at least 10 times, starting in 2019, until 2022, and they met five times in person, either at Gandra’s office in Brasília or at Cervi’s São Paulo headquarters. A further five meetings took place online.

Ives Gandra, meanwhile, met Santiago at least twice, once at the National Congress of Catholic Jurists in 2019.

Print de publicação do Instagram do Cervi, mostrando o encontro do Dr. Ives Gandra (meio) um senhor com uma bengala, paletó e óculos com a representante do Cervi (à dir.) e a Presidente do Centro Rose Santiago uma mulher de cabelo azul e blaser preto.
Rosemeire Santiago (right) and Ives Gandra Martins (centre) at the National Congress of Catholic Jurists in 2019

Santiago also forged a close relationship between Cervi and the women’s ministry when it was led by Alves. Her personal Instagram profile shows Santiago alongside the former minister on at least two occasions. The purpose of these meetings with Alves was to “search for new pro-life partnerships”, according to a post about a meeting between Santiago and Cristiane Britto. At the time they met, Britto was national secretary of women’s policy in Alves’ ministry.

This approach has yielded positive results for Cervi, not least the 2021 funding from the National Department of Women’s Policy via a parliamentary initiative led by federal deputy Chris Tonietto.

Tonietto, a lawyer, is one of Brazil’s most active legislators advocating for the criminalisation of abortion. She has close ties to the ultraconservative Catholic group Dom Bosco Centre and has tabled at least 12 legislative proposals on the issue, according to monitoring by the Feminist Center for Studies and Advice (CFEMEA) and Elas no Congresso, the Women in Congress initiative. Tonietto is also a representative in Brazil for the ultra-conservative Madrid group CitizenGO, which campaigns against legal abortion and LGBTIQ rights.

Tonietto, Britto, Paschoal and Ives and Angela Gandra did not respond to Agência Pública’s request for comments. Santiago responded to Agência Pública’s email to Cervi and offered to talk on the phone. However, she did not respond to the phone calls we repeatedly made, until the publication of this report.

*This is an edited and translated version of an article first published by Agência Pública.


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