This is an edited and cut down version of this piece. It is part of my Beyond the Sex and Sunshine series, where I write about Brazilian women and try to change the sexualized narrative around them. To read the full text please click here and support my work.
Jandira Magdalena dos Santos Cruz, 27, was last seen alive on her way to an illegal abortion clinic in Campo Grande, Rio de Janeiro. Weeks later, her body was found carbonized in a burnt car, without limbs or a dental arch. A divorced mother of two daughters, Jandira resorted to abortion when her boyfriend refused to take responsibility for the pregnancy.
Abortion is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape or if the mother’s life is in danger. This illegality what led Jandira to pay USD$1,200 for a procedure in an illegal clinic. Her case is not a rare one: according to the World Health Organization (WHO) one woman dies every two days because of unsafe abortions in Brazil. Brazilian public health care estimates indicate that 1.5 million women get abortions yearly while the Ministry of Health’s calculations reveal that 3.7 million Brazilian women between the ages of 15 and 49 have had at least one abortion in their lifetime. In Latin America, 95% of abortions are considered unsafe by WHO.
In Brazil, having an abortion is punishable by law and could result in one to four years in prison. In 2005, a proposed bill of law threatened to take away the already existing provisions for abortions and to make abortion a heinous crime. The law would also forbid stem cell research.
In an election year, the subject of abortion is curiously absent from electoral campaigns and debates. Despite Jandira’s death and that of thousands of women which has caught the attention of mainstream media, advocating for the legalization of abortion is considered political suicide in a country where 79% of people are against any change in legislation.
“Abortion is a taboo, religion and the media display dead babies of eight or nine months and say this is abortion, which causes discomfort in any person,” says activist Isabella Medeiros, organizer of a pro-choice march in Rio de Janeiro on September 28. “This image of taboo that the media shows the population is very fictitious; the rate of women who get abortions is immense. In truth, it is a great manipulation because of religion, more so than politics, where conservative values are predominant.”
Mariana* says this predominant attitude in society makes it harder for women who have abortions to speak out or even heal mentally from the procedure. She got an abortion after paying R$12,000 ($5,000) to a doctor who instructed her to go to a high-class hospital and pretend she was having a miscarriage so she could be operated safely.
“He told me to come to a hospital – a good hospital in Rio – and pretend I was having a miscarriage. I would have to arrive in the early hours of the day. I was lucky – we paid a lot of money. My father got a loan from the bank, my mother didn’t go on a planned trip. I was lucky to have a family that was looking out for me, that supported me. They understood it wasn’t the time for me to have a kid.”
While Mariana was fortunate to have the procedure done in a proper hospital, this is not the reality of most Brazilian women.
“Jandira’s case is an example of what we call unsafe abortion,” explains Dr Ligia Bahia in an interview to newspaper O Globo. “It’s an abortion performed outside of a medical unit with proper credentials. In Brazil, because abortion is illegal, interventions in illegal clinics are more common. Women put themselves in a situation of extreme risk when they seek this kind of operation. Ideally, society would debate this theme without an ideology, focusing only on the grave issue of public health.”
Since the legalization of abortion in Uruguay, the number of abortions has decreased and there have been no deaths as a result of the procedures. Despite this positive result, political leaders in Brazil seldom mention a direct change in legislation, with presidential candidate Marina Silva only going as far as proposing a referendum on the issue. According to Uruguay’s Public Health sub-secretary Leonel Briozzo, “that’s not the best way to solve the problem.”
“For the life of women,” they chanted
On September 28, Latin American and Caribbean Day for the Legalization of Abortion, women took to the streets in several cities across Latin America to protest for their bodily autonomy. In Brazil in particular, organizers of the movement hoped to bring attention to the issue in times of election.
At the end of Copacabana beach, a small group of feminist activists painted pro-choice signs for the march later in the day. They were of all colors and backgrounds, but all of them recognize that the criminalization of abortion is a bigger danger to low-income women of color. One of the signs read: “The rich women pay, the poor women die.”
Besides remembering the death of thousands of women across Latin America who died from unsafe abortion, the march in Copacabana had as an objective to start a political conversation about the legalization and decriminalization of the procedure.
Protester Desirée Carvalho, 23, said: “We think this is something to be debated since we are in an election year and this is a subject that isn’t debated, even though we have more than one woman running for president so our objective is this, to talk about the need of the legalization of abortion by the public health system.”
The march was peaceful, but also met with a bit of hostility. Many people shook their heads in disapproval when the protesters chanted pro-choice songs to call attention to the march. A few others observers pumped their fists and joined in, but the march was mostly met with silence.
In a Lugar de Mulher (A Woman’s Place) blog post that went viral last month, Brazilian feminist writer Clara Averbuck summarizes an approach to the legalization of abortion that might work for Brazil.
She wrote: “Your personal opinion about abortion doesn’t matter. Women will continue to have abortions and to risk their lives while it’s not a legal and safe procedure (…) You hate the idea of abortion? OK, so don’t have one. Your opinion won’t change that women have abortions (…) All kinds of women have abortions and there is not one personal opinion that will change that.”
*Not her real name.
This is an edited and cut down version of this piece. To read the full text please click here and support my work in changing the narrative around Brazilian women.