Rio de Janeiro: Abortion has become a big issue in Brazil`s Presidential Election after religious activists dropped support for leading candidate Dilma Rousseff due to her past support for legalising it.
"Religion has enormous weight in Brazilian culture," the head of the Centre for Religious Research at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Maria das Dores Campos Machado, said.
Rousseff encountered that fact the hard way last weekend when she found herself just short of the 50 percent of ballots needed to avoid an October 31 runoff against her main challenger, former Sao Paulo state governor Jose Serra.
She scored 47 percent, partly because religious conservatives decided at the last minute to defect to the Green Party candidate who is part of their flock, Marina Silva, who came in third with a surprisingly strong 19 percent of the vote.
The trigger? A 2007 interview Rousseff had given declaring it was "necessary to legalise abortion" as a matter of public health that began furiously circulating on the Internet. Many evangelical churches called on their followers to not vote for her.
Abortion in Brazil is permitted only when the mother`s life is in danger or when the pregnancy was the result of rape.
But the law is routinely flouted. A 2005 estimate suggested more than a million abortions were carried out in backroom procedures across the country -- a problem that has caused many deaths and medical complications, especially for poor women.
Rousseff herself said she underestimated "the conservative forces" ranged against her, and blamed the Internet campaign and "religious values" on her lower-than-expected score.
Since becoming Lula`s chosen successor, she has changed her tone on abortion, saying on Tuesday she is "above all, in favour of life”.
But the issue remains extremely sensitive in Brazil, the world`s biggest Catholic country.
This year, a bishop in the northeastern city of Recife excommunicated a team of doctors who performed an abortion on a nine-year-girl who became pregnant with twins after being raped by her stepfather.