Today 57 people (so far) have been arrested for being part of a secret abortion gang in Rio de Janeiro. The police revealed they had performed abortions on girls as young as 13, one of many facts which was uncovered in a 15-month investigation in which 80 women gave evidence. It is a crime to have an abortion in Brazil, except in exceptional circumstances such as rape, if the mother’s life is in danger or if part of the foetus’ brain is missing. Yet it is hard to understand why a 13-year-old girl should have to resort to an illegal abortion clinic to get a termination. Police point out illegal abortions in Brazil are a moderate moneyspinner, with gangs making an average R$300,000 per month (that’s about £79,000, or $125,000). We don’t know what motivates each individual (including doctors and lawyers) to participate in such a scheme, but the scale of it inevitably points to a demand which is not being met legally.
Now we are in the second round of Brazil’s elections, it is worth remembering that the two presidential candidates are against changing abortion law. That includes the Workers’ Party incumbent, former guerrilla (and still a woman) Dilma Rousseff. In the last election in 2010, she actually denied being pro-choice when it comes to abortion. Her rival Aecio Neves has reiterated several times he will not change the law if elected. Other social issues have taken centre stage, including gay rights which I wrote about here. But despite two recent horrific deaths of women whose abortions went wrong, both of which have been major news here, the topic has not lit up electoral debates. I have read many impassioned editorials, even in the mainly conservative Brazilian mainstream press, asking for a change in the law, but the public has not got behind it as a cause. Why is that? Well, it could be something to do with the fact that a survey in 2010 found that 82% of Brazilians don’t believe abortion law here needs to be changed.
Brazil is famously the biggest Catholic country in the world, and even if that is gradually changing, no doubt those attitudes still have a strong influence, seeping into the culture over time and invisibly shaping morals and beliefs. The trouble with criminalising personal choices is that the wrong people can suffer as a result. Jandira Magdalena dos Santos was 27 when she disappeared in August. Four months’ pregnant and desperate, she had told her father she wanted to get an abortion. He talked to her on the phone, reassuring her, telling her that they would go together to find a clinic. That phonecall was the last time they ever spoke. The burnt remains of her body were found two days later, missing fingertips and teeth, inside a car. For whatever reason, Jandira went alone to the clinic, and something went wrong during the operation. Those responsible, fearing repercussions for their involvement in an illegal business as well as her death, had done everything possible to disguise her identity. While police were able to make a genetic match on her body, Jandira was still buried without being officially identified due to the measures they took. “The worst thing is that they mutilated her,” her father said at the funeral.
Elizângela Barbosa already had three children when she fell pregnant, and decided not to have the fourth. Aged 32, she tried to take medication to end the pregnancy, but the attempts were not successful. It looked like the only option was to try a clandestine clinic. A driver admitted being told to take her to a nearby hospital after complications, though she did not make it there alive. She lost her life minutes before arriving at the hospital. An autopsy later found she still had a plastic tube in her uterus when she died.
Both deaths are horrific in their unique, separate ways. It would be impossible to say that the burnt and mutilated body, reminiscent of a drug gang murder, is any worse than the poignant image of a lifeless body arriving in a car driven by a stranger outside a hospital, too late to be saved. What is saddest of all is that they could have been prevented, always the worst thing to have to accept with any death. The huge police operation today will likely succeed in putting people behind bars who did indeed break the law; but even if 82% of people here disagree with me, I think it is high time that law was changed. What a pity there is no chance of that happening as a result of the elections on the 26th of this month.