By Jaylan Boyle, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – A recent study conducted by the University of Brasilia has revealed that one in five Brazilian women (22 percent) under forty years of age have undergone at least one illegal abortion. This compares about one-third of U.S. women that will have had an abortion if current trends continue.
Counter to expectation, the study has shown that the circumstances surrounding many Brazilian terminations are quite different to what might be considered typical in the west: Rather than single adolescents or older women, almost sixty percent of respondents admitted to aborting while in the prime reproductive age range of eighteen to 29.
“Most are married women, church going with children and low levels of education” said anthropologist Debora Dinz from the University of Brasilia Bioethics, Human Rights and Gender Department, who directed the study released last week.
In a country with the largest Catholic population in the world, there is room for two exceptions to the law: A women may terminate where rape is responsible for conception, and where the life of the pregnant woman could be endangered by carrying to term. The reality however is that pursuing these avenues is time-consuming and difficult, meaning that many poor candidates go for the black market option.
These two loopholes have also put the Brazilian state in direct opposition to the Vatican: a massive controversy was sparked in 2008 when a doctor and the family of a nine year old girl were excommunicated by the local bishop for approving of and performing the abortion of twins that were the result of sexual abuse by the girl’s stepfather.
In Brazil the issue of ‘right to life’ versus ‘right to choice’ is a very sensitive topic, as many poverty stricken women lack the resources to provide for another mouth. Every year around one million illegal terminations are performed, resulting in the hospitalization of 200,000 due to poor medical practice.
Perhaps the most poignant tragedy is not that the state finds itself in opposition to the church, but that those who need guidance the most are forced to go against the law of their faith on an individual level. Jorgina da Conceicao is one such. “We don’t live in a good situation. What would we do without god in our lives?” she says.
Her story, told by independent film makers Rafael Durao and Chantal James here in Rio, is typical in it’s circumstance, but not in it’s outcome. In reality it is difficult to prove that a termination has occurred, and so authorities don’t often prosecute.
Having obeyed the pulpit in not using birth control, Jorgina fell pregnant with her sixth child. Like millions of others, Jorgina and family live a near-subsistence life, and six children were not an option. So she spent the family’s R$50 grocery budget on black market Cytotec, a banned drug used to treat ulcers, but which is commonly used to induce miscarriage. When she bled to the point of collapse and was rushed to hospital, she was informed that she was under arrest and was placed in isolation. She was then handcuffed to a bed for a week.
Although Brazil is beginning to talk about abortion openly, applause from various women’s rights groups at the inclusion of the issue in the government’s 3rd National Program on Human Rights (PNDH 3) was silenced earlier in the year when the argument was dropped abruptly from discussion.
Much speculation points to the reluctance of election hopefuls to give any headline space to such a polarizing issue. The campaign that lobbied for the veto was headed by the church, which went so far as to liken President Lula to Herod, the biblical Judaean king who ordered the killing of baby boys in Bethlehem.