BRAZIL: Time to Break the Silence on Abortion
The same research showed even more shocking results when statistics are broken down according to race/ethnicity, geographical location, and age. Black women in Brazil are three times more vulnerable to death due to unsafe abortion than the population of white women. Annual rates of unsafe abortion are visibly higher in states from poorer northern and northeastern regions, and abortions become even more dangerous for the adolescent population (between 10-19 years old).
These numbers lead to the consistent conclusion that unsafe abortion disproportionately victimizes less economically privileged social groups. And the statistics show the legacy of racism and social exclusion in Brazil that has lasted since the first Africans were brought here as slaves for Portuguese colonizers. Taking this context into consideration, it becomes clear that the issue of abortion, far from a topic to 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.
Criminalization Is Not the Answer
Proponents of criminalizing abortion in Brazil argue that it is a way of discouraging and repressing the practice. However, the evidence shows that a woman can usually find a way to have an abortion, even if it puts her own life at risk. In 2007 the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) supported this position.
In Brazil, the codes criminalizing abortion punish only the woman. Although the man is involved in making the woman pregnant, if the pregnancy is unwanted or unfeasible and she gets an abortion, her partner is considered innocent. The Brazilian criminal code, which dates back to 1940, assumes a role for women in society that is 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 end 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,” she says.
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 level field among men and women. We need to create an environment in our country 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 promoting education on sexual and reproductive health, reproductive rights, and contraceptive methods. In addition, it is necessary to make condoms and other contraceptive options widely available to the population. These programs should prioritize people living in at-risk communities, and they must involve men as well as women. Gender equality cannot be built by women alone.
But even in countries where these policies are put in place effectively, they are not enough to entirely solve the problem of unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion. Therefore, we should legalize abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, as is the case in most countries in Europe. This would remove barriers to women’s health in our country, especially for those women who are socially excluded.
It won’t be easy to get there. The fact is abortion is a contentious topic. It deals with the most serious issue of all—life. One day I caught myself talking to my grandmother about abortion. From this unlikely dialogue 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.
One can be against the legalization of abortion in order to protect life and one can also be in favor 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.
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.
After my father was excommunicated, he told me that he was glad this had happened because it fostered debate. He added, “I just hope all this debate will be constructive.”