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Brazil's Restrictions On Abortion May Get More Restrictive

Oct 28, 2013
Originally published on October 29, 2013 12:15 pm

The doctor's office is clean and white and comfortingly bland in an upscale neighborhood of Sao Paulo. We were given the address by a health professional who told us one of the doctors here gives safe abortions in a country where they are illegal.

The doctor agrees to speak on condition of anonymity after we prove we are not there to entrap him. He does not admit on tape that he terminates unwanted pregnancies. But he says openly he favors legalizing abortions.

"Most women who want an abortion in Brazil can't afford to come to a doctor," he says. "Women die from a perforated uterus, from general infections."

In Brazil, the law says a woman is only allowed to terminate her pregnancy if she was raped, if her health is in danger or if the child won't be able to survive outside the womb.

But in practice, 800,000 to 1 million women have illegal abortions every year, and some 250,000 end up in the hospital with complications, according to activists.

This is a two-tier system. The few who can afford it come to doctors like this one — the many who can't use other, riskier methods.

The Other Side Of Sao Paulo

We travel to one of the soulless, concrete satellite cities of Sao Paulo whose only attraction seems to be a train that takes commuters into Brazil's financial capital. The woman we meet is black and statuesque, with a wide smile and grave, watchful eyes.

At the time she found out she was pregnant, she was unemployed, her husband was barely making ends meet, and she already had two other children to take care of, one of them only 9 months old. It was a heart-wrenching decision, she says, for both her and her husband.

"It was a moment of despair," she says. "I told my godmother and she said she knew someone who could get me the medicine. I was afraid of what it would do to me. But I took it anyway."

The mixture she took was bought on the black market. She didn't know what was in it or how it would work. And she remained pregnant for 40 days after she drank it.

"Then suddenly I had a very severe hemorrhaging and I was taken to the hospital," she says. "They knew what I'd done and the hospital kept me there for three days. I had to have surgery."

The woman says she knows many other women who have had abortions. Most take at-home concoctions because they are cheaper than back-street abortions, costing only a few hundred dollars.

Still, the homemade medicines often lead to complications, and the woman tells me many of her friends have ended up in the hospital as well.

A Plan To Change The Law

There have been a number of controversial cases lately in Latin America. In Chile, an 11-year-old girl who was raped by her mother's partner was unable to terminate the pregnancy. In El Salvador, a sick woman was forced to carry her child to term.

Those who support abortion rights say that beyond these headline-grabbing stories, millions of women across the region are quietly seeking illegal and potentially fatal terminations.

"The majority of women who are at risk from abortions are black, poor, uneducated and live in the marginal neighborhoods," says Yury Puello Orozco, the director of the Catholics for the Right to Choose. "We estimate that 1 in 5 Brazilian women have had an insecure abortion. So we see this as an issue of public health."

Orozco says there is a push now in Brazil's Congress, led by powerful evangelical Christian and Catholic congressmen, to change the law as it stands. It's called the Unborn Statute, and if passed, it will grant rights to the fetus. Among its controversial articles is one that would force a rapist to provide child support for any offspring of his crime.

Ives Gandra da Silva Martins, a lawyer who consults for the group Brazil Without Abortion, helped author the proposed law. "It's a monumental hypocrisy to say because of a question of health it's OK to kill babies in their mothers' stomachs," he says, adding that even if the proposed law doesn't pass it's a victory that it has gotten this far.

"The fact that this law is being debated will raise people's consciousness of the absurdity of killing innocents," he adds.

In fact, polls show despite many women having abortions, a majority in Brazil are against legalizing it.

Back in the satellite city, the woman we interviewed agrees. She says despite her experience she is actually against abortion in principle.

"I love children and having the abortion caused a trauma," she says. "Until today, I suffer. I think about how old the child would be now, what it would look like."

Thinking it over, she says, "'Maybe the laws should be relaxed but not changed."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Latin America has some of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the world. Many countries in the region have a total ban on terminating a pregnancy, even in the case of rape or danger to the mother. In Brazil, abortion is illegal but there are important exceptions, and proponents of a new bill are trying to roll those exceptions, as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Sao Paulo.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The doctor's office is clean and white and comfortingly bland in an upscale neighborhood of Sao Paulo. We were given the address by a health professional who told us one of the doctors here, for a price, gives safe abortions. The doctor agrees to speak with us anonymously after we prove we are not there to entrap him. He does not admit on tape he terminates unwanted pregnancies. But he says openly he's in favor of legalizing abortions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Most women who want to do an abortion in Brazil he says can't afford to come to a doctor. Women die from a perforated uterus, from general infections, he says.

In Brazil, a woman is only allowed to terminate her pregnancy if she was raped, if her health is in danger or if the child won't be able to survive outside the womb. But in practice, say pro-abortion advocates, between 800,000 to a million women a year have illegal abortions here. Some 250,000 of them end up in the hospital with complications. This is a two-tier system. The few who can afford it come to doctors like this one, the many who can't use other riskier methods.

We travel to one of the soulless, concrete satellite cities of Sao Paulo whose only attraction seems to be a train that takes commuters into Brazil's financial capital. The woman we meet is black and statuesque with a wide smile and grave watchful eyes.

At the time she found out she was pregnant she was unemployed, her husband was barely making ends meet, and she already had two other children to take care of, one of them only 9 months old. It was a heart-wrenching decision she says for both her and her husband.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through translator) It was a moment of despair. I told my godmother and she said she knew someone who could get me the medicine. I was afraid what it would do to me. But I took it anyway.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The mixture she took was un-sourced and bought on the black market. She didn't know what was in it or how it would work. And in fact, she remained pregnant for 40 days after she drank it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through translator) Then suddenly I had a very severe hemorrhaging and I was taken to the hospital. They knew what I'd done and the hospital kept me there for three days. I had to have surgery.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The woman says many women she knows have had abortions. Most take at home remedies because they are cheaper than back street abortions, costing only a few hundred dollars. Still the remedy often leads to complications. And the woman tells me many of her friends have ended up in hospital as well.

Yury Puello Orozco is the director of the Catholics for the Right to Choose. She's a native Colombian so we speak in Spanish.

YURY PUELLO OROZCO: (Through translator) The majority of women who are at risk from abortions are black, poor, uneducated and live in the marginal neighborhoods. We estimate that 1-in-5 Brazilian women have had an insecure abortion. So we see this as an issue of public health.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Orozco says there is a push now in Brazil's congress, lead by powerful evangelical Christian and Catholic congressmen to change the law as it stands now. The latest attempt is called the Unborn Statute and, if passed, it will grant rights to the fetus. Among its controversial articles is one which would force a rapist to provide child support for any offspring of his crime.

Ives Gandra da Silva Martins is a lawyer who consults for the group Brazil Without Abortion and helped author the proposed law.

IVES GANDRA DA SILVA MARTINS: (Through translator) It's a monumental hypocrisy to say because of a question of health it's OK to kill babies in their mother's stomachs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says even if the proposed law doesn't pass it's a victory it's gotten this far.

MARTINS: (Through translator) The fact that this law is being debated will raise people's consciousness of the absurdity of killing innocents.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In fact, polls show despite many women having abortions here illegally in Brazil, a majority are against legalizing it.

Back in the satellite city, the woman we interview agrees. She says despite her experience she's actually against abortion in principal.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through translator) I love children and having the abortion caused a trauma. Until today I suffer. I think about how old the child would be now, what it would look like.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thinking it over she says maybe the laws should be relaxed but not changed.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.