Tracking Down the Brazilian Anencephalic Abortion Case, in English

I got the heads-up from a Brazilian law librarian colleague about a significant opinion published on April 12, 2012. I decided to use the opinion for a kind of case study in how to find cases in English translation. The Supreme Court of Brazil ruled that pregnant women carrying fetuses with anencephaly can legally abort them. The Court’s press releases describing its votes and reasoning are here and here. They’re in Portuguese, which I can make out since I know Spanish, but Google Translate helps give the gist in English. Also, because abortion is a hot issue worldwide, there are a lot of English-language news stories about the case, and there’s already a Wikipedia article! From the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Supreme Court’s ruling “amends Brazil’s current law— which criminalizes abortion completely, with only narrow exceptions in cases of rape or to save a woman’s life—to allow abortion in cases where a fetus has been diagnosed with anencephaly.” This is a major comparative legal development, which raises moral and religious questions. And controversy. What are the chances of finding the full text of this case in English translation?

With a very recent case, the chances of finding it in translation are slim to none. The odds improve the older the case gets, but there is no guarantee. It’s usually possible to obtain English summaries from news sources and blog posts. Extensive, more detailed legal analyses in English take longer, sometimes years. For example, there was a 2008 article (PDF) describing an earlier anencephalic abortion proceeding before the Brazilian Supreme Court. The decisions themselves may never be translated into English. In this blog post, I discuss tried-and-true techniques and tools for hunting down elusive translations.

The first step is to go directly to the source. Sometimes courts have selected decisions in English translation or will know who has or will translate the decision and when. In this case, the Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF) website has an English-language search interface with links (under “Jurisprudence”) to summaries of selected decisions in English translation. Unfortunately, the latest case summary is 2007. The SFT also has links to case abstracts in English, French, and Spanish from mostly 1988 to 2006 on its “Jurisprudência Traduzida” page. So, no joy for my 2012 case.

The next step is to find the case in the original Portuguese, or more information about it if I haven’t yet. To begin to communicate with the Court or anyone about getting the case in English translation, I need exact information. It’s important to get the case name (if available), case number (ADPF 54), and the date of decision. From the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil’s press releases, I have all the information I need. And I can use Google Translate or vLex (subscription database which auto-translates decisions) to get a “good enough” English translation of the decision. I can also use human, professional legal translators. I can also ask the Court when a summary or full translation will be available. I can try contacting the lawyers and organizations involved in the case. Or I can wait.

As time passes, the Brazilian Anencephalic Abortion Case may show up in English translation in the Council of Europe Venice Commission’s CODICES database in summary or full text (while European constitutional courts are its strength, CODICES also contains decisions from Latin American courts). The Library of Congress’ GLIN (Global Legal Information Network) may have an English summary of it. Excerpts or full texts of the case in English translation might be published in databases, casebooks, treatises, and journal articles. Many possibilities!


  1. Geoffrey Beresford Hartwell

    May I say that if a case can be found, Lyonette will find it. This advice will be helpful in developing a structured approach to finding translations. Thank you, Ma’am.

  2. Lyonette Louis-Jacques

    :-) Thanks, Geoffrey! Much props to you and the other folks on the INT-LAW list who help out!