Abortion in Brazil: Legislation and Practice
Before arriving here in Brazil, I didn’t know that abortion was illegal here. That is rather embarrassing to say now, but it’s the truth. It hadn’t even occurred to me to research it. But now that I’m here, abortion has become a rather frequent topic among conversations I’ve had. Being that Brazil is a Catholic country (yet I tend to mingle with urban, middle class youth who are often more liberal), the opinions represented in these conversations vary greatly. I’d like to say that I thrive on these opportunities to hear opinions conflicting with my own, but I have to admit that they are difficult for me. This, of course, does not mean that I am able to back down from them (when have I ever been able to back down?), or that I make significant efforts to avoid them. I do, however, make herculanean efforts to listen, and try to understand opposing opinions. I am genuinely curious about how people were raised or influenced to believe what they do, and I try very hard show that (not an easy task in a language where my ability to express nuance is often limited). But I am still get easily worked up by them, and may spend hours afterwards thinking about it. Which might not be the worst thing in the world. Most of the time these hours are passed regretting all the smart points I was unable to properly deliver because I kept having to ask how to say certain words. People are less impressed by you when your argument sounds like this:
“You know, lots of people think that abortions that are done very late in the pregnancy are very common, but this is not true. There have been many studies that have shown that–at least in the United States–abortions that are performed later in the pregnancy–is there a name for that? Abortions that are later? No, just one word. I know you know what I mean, but it sounds funny. No? Ok, I’ll have to look it up. Back to what I was saying…”
So, I decided to do a bit of research, on vocab to learn (to learn: late-term abortion, cervix, fetus) but also what the state of abortion is here in Brazil, and I thought I would share the information I found with you.
Firstly, let me give you a quick briefing on abortion in the U.S., just to compare: Since the Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade in 1973, abortion in the United States has been legal on a federal level, with each state being left to determine its own laws around the procedure. The U.S. is therefore one of 56 countries–all of which make up 40% of the world’s population–who have legalized abortion without any restrictions (at least at the federal level). In contrast, 68 countries–or 26% of the world’s population–have criminalized abortion except in cases that usually include some combination of rape, incest, or threat to the woman’s life.
In Brazil, abortion is illegal. In fact, Brazil has some of the most restrictive laws around abortion in Latin America, after Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua, all of whom have “banned abortion outright for any reason” (citation). Abortion is only ever legal in Brazil in cases of rape, danger to the woman’s life, or incest. However, it is still very common, with “1 in 5 Brazilian women of child-bearing age having terminated a pregnancy” (citation). But that does not make them safe. According to the Ministry of Health (citation) only 3,050 legally-sanctioned abortions were performed in 2008, whereas about one million unsafe abortions are performed every year.
Out of those one million, 200,000 women are admitted to hospitals every year due to abortion complications (citation), a statistic which is probably an underestimation. These hospitalizations cost the Brazilian government around $10 billion every year, and contribute largely to the fact that Brazil’s maternal mortality rate has not changed, even as the country has provided more and more maternal health services. In Brazil, abortion constitutes the third most common cause of maternal mortality. Women are not only dying giving birth, they are dying trying to avoid giving birth.
What has surprised me most being here, is how everyone knows that it happens. I swear, people talk about it as openly and frequently as we do in the U.S., where it is legal. Everyone knows someone who has had one, or knows where there is a clinic. At least here in Rio. I should probably qualify these statements by explaining that I am currently living in one of the largest cities in the country, surrounded by wealthy, educated (and often international) people. From what I understand, opinions in the Northeast of Brazil are much much more conservative. I’m hoping to make a trip up there sometime, to get a sense of it, because living here in Rio, I think I might be getting an overly positive experience. Here, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before Brazil moves towards legalization. But unfortunately, I don’t think that is really the case. I think we have a long way to go until Brazilian women can make safe choices to terminate unwanted pregnancies.