Kansas and Brazil Punish Women for Abortion

Anu Kumar

In both Brazil and Kansas, the medical records of thousands of women who had undergone an abortion were ordered turned over to the police. Women in Brazil are being prosecuted. Is America far behind?

What does Kansas have in common with the southern Brazilian state of Mato Grosso de Sul? No, not samba, tropical drinks, or a tropical rain forest.

These two distant lands are united in their desire to intimidate and harass women who have had abortions.

In Mato Grosso de Sul, a police raid of a clinic suspected of providing abortions resulted in the interrogation of nearly 10,000 women, whose records were found there, on suspicion of having abortions in 1999-2001. At this time, 36 women have been prosecuted; an additional 2,215 records have yet to be fully reviewed, but it is anticipated that approximately 1,000 women will ultimately be prosecuted and convicted. The official penalty for a woman who has willingly induced an abortion in Brazil is up to one to three years in prison. But the punishment meted out to the 36 women by the judge that ordered the investigation is community service at a local orphanage – just the kind of humiliation that should serve to shame them further.

This might seem unsurprising in a country where abortion is highly restricted, but a similar case has taken place in our own country. In Kansas, Women’s Health Care Services, where Dr. George Tiller is a late term abortion provider, was ordered to turn over clinic records of about 2,000 women to police to determine if an illegal abortion procedure had occurred. Despite the considerable efforts of Kansans for Life and the invoking of a 19th century law, the clinic was able to block the subpoena and the grand jury refused to indict Dr. Tiller.

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There is a key difference in the two situations: In Brazil, abortion is a criminal offense and is only permitted in cases of rape or to save the life of a woman whereas in the United States abortion is legal, though states have imposed restrictions. The criminalization of this very common procedure (1.3 million abortions take place in Brazil), results in the hospitalization of 250,000 Brazilian women with complications from unsafe abortion every year. In the United States the incidence of abortion is almost the same (in 2005, there were 1.2 million abortions in the United States), but complications and hospitalizations are extremely rare, largely because abortion is legal. But if opponents of women’s rights have their way, how much longer will American women stay safe?

The harassment of abortion providers and the seizure of clinic records is simply another tactic to punish women for exercising their right to choose when and whether to be pregnant. Anyone who helps them on this path will be harassed and exposed.

It’s clear from both of these cases that opponents of abortion are not simply concerned with a few restrictions here and there. They want to be sure that women and doctors alike are hauled into the public square and condemned openly for ensuring that women have control over their reproductive destinies. But research in Brazil, and elsewhere, shows that legal restrictions will not keep women from ending unwanted pregnancies. They will risk their lives to do it if safe, legal, respectful, high-quality care is not available. We know this. We also know that the easiest way to prevent deaths and injuries is to ensure that this care is available.

In Brazil, Ipas has created a campaign to get Brazilians thinking about the consequences of criminalized abortion, called "Think about it" ("Vai pensando aí," in Portuguese).

Perhaps we need to start a similar campaign in the United States. After all, what would the consequences for women be if those who drove the campaign to "out" women in the courts in Kansas were successful around the country? What if women knew that their doctor might be forced to hand over their private medical records to the courts for inspection, second guessing their medical judgment? We already have a situation where an abortion procedure is the only medical procedure ever to be adjudicated by the Supreme Court.

Are we willing to imprison women and their providers for abortion? Think about it.

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