The reality of clandestine abortions in Brazil

. Mar 03, 2020
The reality of clandestine abortions in Brazil Demonstration for legal abortions in Buenos Aires. Photo: Laura Rivas/Shutterstock

In Argentina, center-left President Alberto Fernández has promised to submit to Congress a bill for legal abortions in the coming days, which could make the country the first major Latin American nation to legalize the termination of unwanted pregnancies. In Uruguay, Cuba, and Guyana, abortion is already permitted by law. In Brazil, however, the practice is outlawed in almost all cases, and the existing legislation casts a spotlight over the deep socioeconomic and racial cleavages in the country.

Abortion in Brazil is considered a crime. Women who terminate their pregnancies can face prison sentences of between one and three years, while the individual who carries out the procedure can be sent behind bars for up to four years.

</p> <p>There are four <a href="">exceptions to this rule</a>: spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), cases where the pregnancy poses a risk to the life of the mother, when the pregnancy is a result of rape, and when the fetus is anencephalic—a birth defect that results in the absence of a major portion of the skull and/or brain.</p> <p>The reality in Brazil, however, is very different. Though the nature of the practice means that trustworthy figures are hard to come by, clandestine abortions happen every day in the country, with ballpark estimates ranging from between 500,000 to one million each year.</p> <p>As the practice is illegal in the country, abortion procedures are either prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of the population, or they are extremely dangerous. A <a href="">study</a> published in scientific journal <em>Reports in Public Health</em> analyzed official data on hospitalization and mortality and found that between 2008 and 2015, roughly 200,000 women were taken to the hospital each year due to complications related to abortions. Only 1,600 of these cases concerned legal abortions.</p> <p>Between 2006 and 2015, the same study identified that 770 mothers died from complications related to abortions—an average of one every five days. The researchers of the paper alleged that these figures are vastly underestimated due to inconsistencies in medical reports.</p> <h2>Safe abortions reserved for the rich</h2> <p>While the illegality of abortion in Brazil affects every woman in the country, the direct impacts are disproportional among different social groups. According to official data, white women have a consistently lower rate of mortality from abortion-related hospitalizations, ranging between 1 and 3 percent in the period of 2006–2015. For black and multiracial women, however, this chance of mortality is considerably higher.</p> <p>As socioeconomic classes in Brazil are largely drawn across ethnic lines, this discrepancy can be explained by the prohibitive cost of safe clandestine abortions.</p> <p>A number of gynecology clinics in major Brazilian cities administer clandestine surgical abortions, which are the safest ways to terminate pregnancies. These health centers do not advertise their services, operating on a strict word-of-mouth basis. While said procedures are relatively quick and easy to schedule—with the added security of post-op medical follow-ups—the inherent risks of clinics performing illegal abortions make them costly and, therefore, out of reach for less-wealthy mothers.</p> <p>Surgical abortions at these clandestine clinics can cost anything between BRL 4,000 and 8,000, depending on the stage of the pregnancy. Furthermore, payment is usually required upfront, in cash, meaning these procedures are restricted to wealthier individuals in a country with a minimum wage of BRL 1,039.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1079075"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>For pregnant women who cannot afford surgical abortions in Brazil, the alternatives are much more precarious. Abortive drugs such as mifepristone and misoprostol are available illegally on the parallel market, with the full medication plan required to provoke miscarriage costing anything between BRL 500 and 1,000.</p> <p>These drugs can be administered safely in hospitals in countries where abortion is legal, but the clandestine nature of the practice means that the medications are often taken by young unaccompanied women, unsure of the proper dosage and potential side effects.</p> <p>The combination of mifepristone and misoprostol work by stimulating contractions in the uterus to induce a miscarriage. In some cases, the pain and vaginal hemorrhaging resulting from the use of these drugs cause women to seek emergency medical care. If they are unable to convince doctors that they are undergoing a natural miscarriage, they may be prosecuted by the police and face jail time.</p> <h2>No incentive for change?</h2> <p>Though it is an obvious health crisis in Brazil, public opinion largely sides with prohibitive abortion legislation. In a survey carried out by respected pollster Datafolha in January 2019, only 22 percent of respondents said that rules on abortion should be less strict, while 41 percent said terminating unwanted pregnancies should be illegal <em>in all cases</em>, even those currently permitted by law. A further 34 percent said they agreed with abortion legislation the way it is.</p> <p>In the same study, anti-abortion views were consistently higher among self-declared Evangelical Christians and Catholics, and poorer socio-economic classes—which are on average more religious.</p> <p>At the same time, political elites have no incentive to change the legislation and make abortion rules more liberal. While on the one hand, members of Congress are often beholden to powerful Evangelical Christian caucuses which have public opinion onside, the fact that relatively safe clandestine abortions are readily available in the country for wealthy individuals wipes out the political will for pro-choice legislation.&nbsp;

Euan Marshall

Euan Marshall. Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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