Commentary Abortion

Brazil’s Criminal Abortion Laws Are Killing Women

Beatriz Galli

For women in Brazil, seeking an abortion can have extreme legal, social, and physical consequences.

At the end of August, Jandira Magdalena dos Santos Cruz, a 27-year-old women living in Rio de Janeiro, decided to end her pregnancy. Abortion is illegal except in rare cases in Brazil, but a friend gave her the name of a clandestine provider, and she agreed to pay the equivalent of U.S. $2,200 for the procedure. On August 26, Cruz, who had no other information other than a card with the doctor’s name and phone number, met a stranger in the bus station who was supposed to drive her to the clinic. Her ex-husband was the last person to see her when he dropped her off in the morning; when he went to pick her up in the afternoon, she had not returned. She has not been found since.

Cruz’s case is exemplary of the dire effects that criminalizing and stigmatizing abortion can have on women’s health and safety. In the past few years, a series of highly publicized raids on clandestine clinics around Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities has forced abortion providers even further underground than they were before—frequently putting those who seek them in extreme danger.

According to When Abortion Is a Crime, a report by the human rights groups Ipas and the Institute for Religious Studies, Brazilian police reported 351 abortion-related cases from 2007 to 2011. Of these, 334 were against women who had either induced an abortion on their own using pills or had obtained one illegally from a provider. The remaining 17 cases were the result of clinic raids, in which health-care staff—including doctors, nurses, receptionists, and others—were charged with criminal activity related to abortion.

Because Brazilian law only permits the procedure in cases of rape, fetal anencephaly, or risk to life, in 2012 the country’s Ministry of Health reported only 1,626 legal abortions in a nation with 203 million people. However, the organization estimates that one million Brazilian women have abortions every year—comparable to the rate in the United States. Many of those women, particularly those without the financial or social resources to see a well-trained, willing provider, run a huge legal risk when they decide to end an unwanted pregnancy. But the physical consequences, too, can often be devastating.

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Cruz’s case came to light only a few weeks ago. Recently, the press in Rio reported that the police had found a mutilated body in the trunk of a car: a woman who had been shot in the head, with her arms, legs, and teeth removed, leaving officials unable to identify her. Physical characteristics, though, suggest that the body is Cruz’s; police are carrying out genetic tests to confirm that and will release the results within 30 days.

When we talk about “abortion-related deaths,” we generally mean from direct injuries that occur when a women obtains an abortion from an unsafe provider. However, the reality is that Brazilian women—especially those in vulnerable situations or from marginalized groups, such as poor, young, or rural women, or women of African descent—put their safety on the line when they seek the procedure at all.

In addition to the legal barriers they face, these women must also combat a culture of stigma arising from the collective belief that abortions are unethical, uncommon, and unacceptable. And in turn, this stigma contributes to the individual secrecy, social silence, and medical marginalization experienced by women like Cruz. Cruz’s death was an unmistakable tragedy; its root cause, though, is all too common. The fact that abortion services are penalized by the law and by society is a stark violation of women’s most basic human rights: the right to life, the right to health care, and the right to bodily integrity.

It can be said that Cruz died because she lives in Brazil, not in Canada, Mexico City, or Uruguay, for example, where she could have secured a safe and legal procedure. Women’s dignity and reproductive rights in Brazil have been so ignored, and the social shame around abortion is so strong, that politicians prefer to be silent about the horror of a woman’s mutilated body and what it means. Although President Dilma Rousseff suggested during her first campaign that she might have doubts about Brazil’s strict 1940 legislation criminalizing abortion, the government has since bowed to conservative religious groups and declared its unwillingness to examine it. Because of this, women’s lives and health are still not taken seriously.

Brazil will be holding presidential elections in October. So far, neither of the two leading candidates, who both happen to be women, have been willing to entertain any deeper discussion about the state’s failure to prevent these avoidable deaths and the urgent need to liberalize current abortion law. In fact, women’s rights issues haven’t even been raised in political debates, due to the strong influence that public ignominy and religious conservatives have had on directing campaign priorities.

Until leaders are willing to pull their heads out of the sand, Brazil will continue to watch more women disappearing and dying—as if these tragedies were merely an expression of God’s will or divine fate, rather than a direct result of the silence and stigma surrounding abortion.

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