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10-year-old rape victim reignites abortion debate in Brazil

and . Aug 17, 2020
abortion laws in brazil Photo: Marcello Jr/ABr/Archive

Abortion is only legal in Brazil in very specific circumstances. Women can only legally terminate a pregnancy in four cases: rape, incest, when the mother’s life is in danger, or — since 2012 — in cases of anencephaly, a fatal condition in which infants are born without parts of the brain or skull. Despite those restrictions, an estimated 500,000 abortions happen every year in the country, according to a 2019 estimate. And one case of legal abortion is sparking a heated debate among pro-choice and anti-abortion groups.

</p> <p>A 10-year-old girl from Vitória — the capital city of the southeastern state of Espírito Santo — had to go to court to be given the right to terminate a pregnancy that was the result of sexual abuse by her 33-year-old uncle. Despite obtaining legal approval, the medical staff at her Vitória hospital refused to carry out the surgery, claiming that current legislation does not permit second-trimester abortions. The 10-year-old was approximately 22 weeks pregnant.</p> <p>A seemingly unambiguous case then became a nasty and public judicial struggle.&nbsp;</p> <p>The child&#8217;s family had to take her to Recife — a city 1,800 kilometres from her home — in order to perform the procedure on Monday. As the legal comings and goings had already made it to the national media, far-right religious groups gathered outside the abortion clinic, calling the 10-year-old child a &#8220;murderer,&#8221; in the hopes of changing her mind.</p> <h2>The case</h2> <p>Upon becoming aware of the case, Human Rights Minister Damares Alves — an Evangelical preacher who is uncompromisingly against the right to legal abortion — sperheaded an opinion campaign to dissuade the girl from terminating her pregnancy. On social media, she gave publicity to the case, lamenting the judicial decision. &#8220;An abortion at this point may jeopardize the mother&#8217;s life or leave her with permanent damage, such as a perforated uterus,&#8221; wrote Ms. Alves, contradicting Health Ministry regulations.</p> <p>Meanwhile, far-right religious extremist groups rallied to protest the abortion, led by activist Sara Giromini, best known by her <em>nom de guerre</em> Sara Winter. On social media, Ms. Winter — who was previously employed by Damares Alves&#8217; Human Rights Ministry — revealed the location of the hospital where the procedure was to take place, as well as the identity of the 10-year-old girl in question. She urged her followers to gather outside the medical facility, forming a human barricade to block doctors&#8217; entry.&nbsp;</p> <p>On Monday afternoon, a court in Espirito Santo ordered Facebook, Twitter, and Google to remove Ms. Winter&#8217;s social media posts that exposed the child&#8217;s identity.</p> <p>Ms. Winter spent time in jail in June for taking her role in organizing anti-democratic protests in Brasilia that called for the closure of the Supreme Court and Congress.</p> <h2>Legal abortion remains a hot-button issue in Latin America</h2> <p>A <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-2667(19)30204-X/fulltext">2019 study</a> published by medical journal The Lancet shows that Latin America &#8220;has the most punitive laws for illegal abortion and yet the <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/servlet/linkout?suffix=e_1_4_1_2_2_2&amp;dbid=4&amp;doi=10.1016/S2468-2667(19)30204-X&amp;key=10.1016%2FS0140-6736%2816%2930380-4&amp;cf=fulltext&amp;site=lancet-site">highest estimated frequency</a> of abortions in the world: 44 per 1,000 women compared with lowest frequency of 17 per 1,000 women in the U.S. and Canada.&#8221; And, according to a a report by the Guttmacher Institute, 95 percent of abortions in Latin America are unsafe — leading to nearly 1 million hospitalizations each year, and some of the highest death rates in world.</p> <p>Except for Cuba, Uruguay, and Puerto Rico — where abortions are allowed in all cases within a gestational limit — most Latin American countries only permit women to interrupt pregnancies in restricted scenarios, usually rape and to preserve the mother&#8217;s health.</p> <p>But having the right to a legal abortion does not necessarily mean being able to have one. Last year, a case in the Argentinian province of Jujuy shocked the country — after a 12-year-old girl spent weeks trying to terminate a pregnancy after being raped by a 65-year-old neighbor. After an intense legal battle, courts ordered termination <a href="https://www.batimes.com.ar/news/argentina/baby-of-raped-12-year-old-in-jujuy-died-tuesday.phtml">via C-section</a>. “It was not a legal termination of the pregnancy, it was torture,” <a href="https://peoplesdispatch.org/2019/01/30/it-was-not-legal-termination-of-pregnancy-it-was-a-torture/">said</a> the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion in Jujuy.</p> <p>And just a day after the Brazilian case, a similar episode came to light in Peru. According to news website Wakya Peru, on May 27, a 12-year-old girl was raped in the Añaycancha region and became pregnant as a result. While Peru allows abortion in these cases — especially when the victim is a minor — the girl’s family was <a href="https://twitter.com/WaykaPeru/status/1295343312984039425?s=19">denied the request</a> for the procedure. The girl eventually suffered a miscarriage.&nbsp;</p> <p>A 19-year-old man accused of the rape said the girl was his partner. Despite being contradicted by the victim&#8217;s medical examinations and testimony, the judge accepted the accused&#8217;s version of events and denied the right to abort the pregnancy.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Brazil: debates in Congress and the Supreme Court</h2> <p>According to the Brazilian Public Security Annual Report, there are on average 180 rapes a day in Brazil. Four girls aged no more than 13 are abused every hour in the country — mostly by family members or people they already know. </p> <p>Still, Evangelical groups in Congress are trying to toughen up abortion laws in the country, hoping to <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2017/11/10/brazil-abortion-law-rape-victims/">outlaw abortions even in cases of rape</a>. A bill to this effect passed a special congressional committee after an 18-1 vote, with the sole objection coming from the only female member of the panel.&nbsp;</p> <p>The proposal had been shelved in the previous legislature, but was resumed at the request of Senator Eduardo Girão, from the northeastern state of Ceará. &#8220;Allowing abortions is a crime. […] We can&#8217;t allow such an atrocity to happen,&#8221; he said on Twitter.&nbsp;</p> <p>Another proposal, authored by Senator Flávio Arns, would outlaw abortions in cases of anencephaly, a right approved by the Supreme Court as recently as 2012.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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