Abortion: Beyond personal choices
It was a regular weekday, that Wednesday in March, 2009. I came back from university at noon and I was having lunch with my brothers while watching the local news on TV. I was not paying much attention to the voice of the commentator until I was struck by that familiar name: Olimpio Moraes Filho – my father.
We instantly looked towards the TV to check what was being said. It took a while for us to understand what was going on. The archbishop of our city was publicly excommunicating my father – who is a doctor - and his whole medical team for performing an abortion. But it was not a common case of abortion. On the contrary, it was a very shocking one.
A 9 year-old girl from the interior of my state, Pernambuco, had become pregnant with twins due to sexual abuse by her step father. Carrying on with the pregnancy represented an enormous risk of death to the girl, as she was not yet prepared for such transformations in her young body.
Under Brazilian Law, abortion is a crime. However, there are exceptional cases in which it is legal for a doctor to perform an abortion. These cases are: 1. If there is no other way to save the pregnant woman’s life or 2. If the pregnancy is the result of rape. Both of these circumstances were present in the 9 year-old girl’s case. Therefore, my father and his medical team were not doing anything illegal.
The archbishop argued, however, that the law of God was superior to the law of men and that abortion resulted necessarily in excommunication from the Catholic Church. When asked about the girl’s step father who had raped her, the archbishop affirmed that rape was a dreadful sin, but abortion was even worse.
This statement led to an astonishing amount of attention from the media and generated wide public debate, not only in my state and in my country, but also internationally, being published in newspapers such as the New York Times and leading to apologies by the Vatican itself. Reporters from everywhere came to visit our house and get more information about the story.
People were compelled to debate, as the condemnation of my father and his team by the archbishop was highly controversial. How could he claim to be protecting life while presenting some tolerance for the rape of an innocent child, as well as condemning the doctors who were acting with the support of the law and trying to save the child’s life?
The case raised all sorts of questions about theology, morality, the role of religion in politics and law, gender-based and domestic violence, criminality in Brazil, among other crucial issues. But first and foremost, the 9 year-old girl’s case finally made people – young and old, progressive and conservative, religious and atheists, men and women - discuss abortion.
Brazil, a laic country - Brazilians, a Catholic people:
Positioning yourself politically with regards to abortion implies dealing with very delicate and often intimate experiences and beliefs. As science currently does not offer a definite answer to the question about the beginning of life, and as we still have to answer this question to regulate our conduct both morally and legally, the most accepted answer is very often the one given by religion. This is very much the case in my country.
Brazil has legally been a secular state since 1890. This means it has been 120 years since the state and the Catholic Church have been legally separated. However, in practice, the Catholic religion has always shaped much of the public opinion. Indeed, by the latter half of the 20th century, Brazil ranked as the largest Catholic country in the world. According to the national census from the year 2000, nearly 74% of the country’s population is Catholic.
This strong influence has been considered harmful by many women’s rights organizations. The condemnation by the Catholic Church of the use of contraceptives goes in the opposite direction of what women’s rights movements defend. That is also the case of abortion.
Abortion in Brazil: a matter of public health and social justice:
Research led by the NGO Ipas Brasil, in 2007, in partnership with the Institute of Social Medicine of the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), showed that approximately 1.054.243 abortions are performed in Brazil each year. Unsafe abortion is among the top 3 causes of avoidable death among women in my country. The same research showed the magnitude of unsafe abortions according to race/ethnicity, age and geographical location.
The result is shocking, and yet, unfortunately makes sense. With regards to race/ethnicity, the population of black women is three times more vulnerable to death due to unsafe abortion than the population of white women. With regards to geographical location, the annual rates of unsafe abortion are visibly higher in states from the Northern and North-eastern regions, and it becomes even more dangerous when the adolescent population (from 10-19 years old) is the group taken into consideration.
These numbers are far from random. They lead to the consistent conclusion that unsafe abortion victimizes mainly the social groups who are less economically privileged. In Brazil, black people have been discriminated against since the beginning of our national history.
At first, Africans were brought to Brazil as slaves for the Portuguese colonizers. Although slavery was abolished in 1888, there were no inclusive policies put into place to make sure the ex-slaves would become participative citizens with equal access to opportunities. In practice, racism and social exclusion remained and, although much progress has been made, a high percentage of poor people in Brazil are black. Similarly, the Northern and North-eastern regions in Brazil are the poorest in the whole country. They present the higher rates of illiteracy and unemployment as well as the lower income rates.
Taking this context into consideration, it becomes clear that the issue of abortion, far from being a topic that should be kept exclusively in the intimacy of households, is a serious matter of public health and social justice, and deserves the attention of both government and civil society.
The criminalization of abortion in Brazil: does it solve the problem?
The main argument that supports the criminalization of abortion in Brazil is that criminalizing it is a way of discouraging and repressing such a practice. However, the women’s rights movement alleges that such a measure is ineffective in discouraging women with unwanted pregnancies from having an abortion. If women do not have the conditions to carry on their pregnancy, they usually find a way to have an abortion, even if it puts their own life at risk. The United Nations Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) supported this argument in 2007.
“What in fact happens is that the abortion is performed anyways. The difference is that wealthy women can afford a safe abortion in clean clinics – legally or not, whereas poor women, who are the majority of the feminine population in Brazil, have to perform abortions in places with no adequate medical care, resulting in serious damage for their health.” This statement, by Benita Spinelli, the coordinator of the sector of women’s health in the municipality of Recife, my city, indicates the evident injustice in this situation.
Another argument that stands against the present legislation in Brazil is the fact that it punishes only the woman. Although the man is involved in making the woman pregnant, if the pregnancy is unwanted or unfeasible, the woman is supposed to be punished, but her partner does not have any legal responsibility and is considered innocent. The Brazilian Criminal Code has many outdated points, as its text dates back to 1940 and the role of women in society was very different than it is today.
In addition, the criminalization of abortion creates a threatening atmosphere that makes many women present symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia once they have made the choice to interrupt the pregnancy. Leila Adesse, one of the founders of Ipas Brasil, affirms that the penalization and stigmatization women in such a situation does not minimize the problem. “Instead of being discriminated against and put in jail, these women need psychological support, medical care and a more efficient coverage of contraceptive methods”, says Leila.
The way(s) out – my own solution-oriented perspective:
The most efficient way to reduce the rates of unsafe abortions is, of course, to reduce the rates of unwanted pregnancies. For that to happen, women have to be able to negotiate with their partners and engage in family planning. This demands a levelled field among men and women, an environment in which women have a voice.
As a matter of public health and human rights, the reduction of unsafe abortions also demands a proactive attitude from the government. The situation requires public policies aimed at promoting education on sexual and reproductive health, reproductive rights and contraceptive methods. In addition, it is necessary to make condoms and other contraceptive options available to the population, as much as possible. These programs should prioritize the poor, the less educated and the people living in at-risk communities, but should also go beyond that. These policies must also involve both women and men, as gender equality cannot be built by women alone.
Another measure that works very efficiently in some countries – but not in Brazil -, is the creation of orphanages with the proper conditions to accommodate the children. This way, women who do not have the conditions to raise a child properly would not feel compelled to end their pregnancy, as their children could be adopted by a family able to offer a much better life to them.
But even in countries where all these policies were put in place effectively, they were not enough to solve the problem of unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion. Therefore, I believe amplifying the possibility of legal abortions (for example, making abortion legal until the third month of pregnancy, as it is in most countries in Europe) would eliminate many barriers to women’s health, mainly to those women who are socially excluded.
Unanswered questions, difficult decisions and the importance of debate:
The fact is that abortion is a contentious topic. It deals with the most serious issue of all – life. One can be against the legalization of abortion in order to protect life and one can also be in favour of the legalization of abortion for the exact same reason. The difference, in many cases, lies in whose life you are considering the most important. And to consider some lives more important than others is undoubtedly problematic.
The issue is made even more complex due to the lack of a precise definition about when life really starts. You may believe that life begins with the conception – as does the Catholic Church, which considers having an abortion murdering a baby. But you also may choose more flexible criteria – for example, that life starts with the formation of the foetus’ neurological system, which happens by the third month of pregnancy. In this case, having an abortion at very early stages of the foetus’ development would not constitute such a reproachable action and the lives of many women could be saved.
Despite all these doubts, there is one thing I am certain about: unsafe abortion is a reality in Brazil. And thus, no matter how controversial this subject is, debate should not be avoided, but encouraged. I remember my father saying that although he was excommunicated, he was glad this had happened because it fostered debate. “I just hope all this debate will be constructive”, he said to me.
I fully realized the importance of such a widespread debate when I caught myself talking to my grandmother about abortion. From this unlikely dialog between a strongly Catholic 70 year-old woman and an agnostic 17 year old girl, we did not reach any definitive conclusions, but we realized that we both had our reasons, which were legitimate and made sense, however different our beliefs were.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.