Crime and Punishment: Illegal Abortion in Brazil


An
estimated one million illegal abortions occur in Brazil each year, yet very few
women have ever been imprisoned for seeking abortion care. That may be about to change.

In
April of this year, officials in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul took
a brisk departure from the nation’s relative "tolerance" of illegal
abortion practice, arresting the head of a two decade-old family planning
clinic for providing abortions and seizing the medical records of nearly 10,000
women.

As
a result of the crackdown, the medical histories of 9,862
women were made public and the debate around decriminalization of abortions was
re-ignited. Of the women whose records were seized, about a thousand are
under suspicion of criminal abortions and 36 have been sentenced to date in an
ongoing trial. Women convicted thus far have been offered alternative
sentences of community service in local daycares at the discretion of judges,
who are empowered to assign one to three years’ prison sentence.

In
Brazil,
abortion is a crime except in cases of rape or proven threat to the mother’s
life.

Nationwide
Repercussions

Although
unsafe abortion leads to 250,000 hospitalizations in Brazil each
year and is the third-leading cause of maternal death, the overall tolerance of
illegal abortion had let the issue lapse somewhat in the public conscious. The
recent events in Mato Grosso do Sul have brought it back to the forefront. The
case is unprecedented in scale and in the violation of privacy laws that
occurred, wherein private medical records were exposed to public perusal for
weeks. Moreover, it is the first
instance of direct, retroactive and en masse targeting of patients.

"In
the past, they closed clinics and apprehended equipment. Now, in order to indict women and produce
evidence against doctors, the police are handling medical records which by law
should only be interpreted by a mediating physician," says lawyer and
reproductive rights specialist Carmen Hein de Campos. "A very dangerous precedent has been set."

Beatriz
Galli, of Ipas Brasil, warns, "This case is an alarm signal. It shows that there is a strategy of mass
persecution and indictment of women… in order to demonstrate that the law has
not fallen into disuse, that it is being enforced."

"In
cases where proof exists that these women practiced abortion, it is not up to
me to choose not to indict them," Paulo César dos Passos, chief prosecutor in
the Mato Grosso do Sul case explained to Agência
Brasil
. "The Penal Code clearly establishes that the practice of abortion
is a crime [...] and I cannot avoid carrying out the law. It is not about a personal position." In
response to protests, he argued that law enforcement cannot be held responsible
for "an issue that must be confronted by public policy and by congress, stating
whether abortion should continue to be a crime or not."

Legalization Defeated
in Congress

In
light of the events in Mato Grosso do Sul, a special hearing of the Brazilian
House of Representatives was called on June 18th. In the hearing, Nilcéia Freire, Minister of
the Special Secretariat for Women’s Policies, spoke in favor of legalizing
abortion via a bill that would soon be voted on in congress. In other nations where abortion has been
legalized, she argued, the death rate from unsafe abortions is close to nil,
and the number of overall abortions has not increased.

"And
the responsibility of the 9,862 men presumably associated with these
pregnancies?" Minister Freire wrote in leading paper O Globo. "Might that be remembered and pursued legally at some
point?"

Soon
thereafter the bill that would have legalized abortion, after languishing in
congress for sixteen years, was voted on and defeated. Reproductive rights activists had attempted
to remove the bill from the agenda due to its slim chances of passing, but to
no avail. According to Campos, "It is
virtually impossible to decriminalize abortion with the current legislative
makeup. We first need to win over public
opinion."

Roughly
one-third of the Brazilian congress belongs to the "Parliamentary Front for
Families and In Support of Life." Many are closely tied
to religious interests. Congressman
Henrique Afonso openly opines, "The legalization of abortion is in the interest
of those who defend population control, those who are concerned with building a
‘superior race’ and those who sell the tissue of aborted fetuses." Another
congressman, José Bassuma, argues that to legalize abortion is
unconstitutional, violating the citizen’s right to life. Both are members of President Lula’s Workers’
Party, considered one of the more left-leaning in Brazil.

"How
in Brazil, with so much forward progress in alternative energy, social policy,
the economy… can we still be so behind on this issue?," says Galli.

The
Mato Grosso do Sul case does seem to be part of or inspiration for a broader
strategy. Since April, two more clinics
in different states have been shut down, each with the new practice of seizing
patient records.

Looking Ahead

Abortion
is no exception to the Brazilian status quo: it discriminates sharply along
class lines. Women able to pay cash for
abortion – which costs anywhere from two to ten times the monthly minimum wage
- have relatively easy access to clandestine but safe abortion care provided by
qualified doctors. But as the majority
of Brazilians are poor, most women resort to self-induced or otherwise unsafe
abortions, often via medication.

"The
current laws are unjust. They discriminate against the most vulnerable women:
those without money, or education… they are the ones who run the risk of
death," Galli argues. "In addition to
the legalization of abortion, we need to make health services available for all."

The
presidency and cabinet are more openly supportive of legalizing abortion than
the overall population of this, the world’s largest Catholic country. Research
indicates that 65 per cent of Brazilians believe abortion should remain
illegal, and the current congress has repeatedly voted against acts to legalize
or liberalize access.

Last
year, the Ministry of Health set forth its position in favor of making abortion
a public health issue, rather than a criminal one. It also launched a
widespread birth control subsidy program and educational campaign (both
coincidentally on the eve of the Pope’s visit last year). Since then, however, the president and
ministers have stopped speaking out on the topic, presumably due to strong
dissent from religious groups and their affiliates in the legislature.

The
recent clampdowns and their repercussions have forced a largely anti-abortion
public to reflect upon whether criminal sentences are the best solution, and
whether women alone should be left to answer for an unwanted pregnancy.

"[The
recent cases] have had some positive outcome, in the sense that they have given
us more solid and concrete arguments," says Galli. "They show that a law from the 1940s does not
deal with the current reality. It
produced a reaction that [the authorities] didn’t want – people began talking
about human rights, about discrimination against women."

"The
decriminalization of abortion has always been a difficult challenge in Brazil," said Campos.
"It feels as though everything is still inside a pressure cooker."

"On the other
hand," she added, "abortion has never been discussed so much."

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  • invalid-0

    This is a well written article that captures many of the issues regarding abortion. It is sad that in a poor country such as Brazil where most people cant afford birth control abortions are illegal. This is no way to help improve the economic situation for the very large poor population.

  • invalid-0

    Thank you for this article. The situation in Brazil should bring attention to similar situations in other South and Central American countries. In Bolivia, for example, abortion is completely illegal, even when the health and life of the mother is at risk. The number of unsafe abortions in Bolivia is incredibly high and women who attempt to have an abortion are often thrown in jail. It is a problem that affects primarily poor women. Worse, due to the influence of the Catholic church in Bolivia, NO ONE will even discuss the issue – not the media, the government, etc. – even though it is a serious public health issue there.

  • invalid-0

    I totally disagree with all of the incorrect and abusive language that Mrs. Levinson uses. I think she lacks proper information on the topic because I’m a Brazilian citizen and you have not been part of this experience. She may have worked hard. -

  • invalid-0

    I didn’t see anything abusive. What were you referring to? And if she is giving out incorrect information, I want to hear about it. I always want to hear all the facts about any issue before deciding what I think. What was incorrect?
    Um….I’m afraid I don’t understand what you meant by your last sentence. “She may have worked hard?” Huh?
    Also, why assume that Levinson’s a Mrs. and not a Miss or a Ms.? This is pretty much a feminist site. We’re big on Ms. here, since it’s nobody’s business if a woman is married or not. Men don’t have ridiculous labeling based on marital sate. Why should we?