A recent report on abortion in Brazil has revealed the impact on women’s lives and health when their reproductive freedoms are restricted. Unlike El Salvador and Nicaragua, Brazil allows abortion in the rare cases of rape, anencephaly, or when the mother’s life is at risk. However, in what is an all-too-common pattern throughout much of Latin America, criminalization of abortion has failed to eliminate the practice, instead forcing it underground, reducing women’s reproductive freedom even while greatly increasing the risk to their health.
Despite its illegality, Brazil’s Ministry of Health estimates that about 1 million abortions are performed in the country annually, and that about 200,000 women die every year from infections, vaginal bleeding, and other complications from illegal abortions. Other estimates put those numbers even higher.
A 2010 University of Brasilia study found that 1 in 5 Brazilian women under 40 — more than 5 million women overall, or about 22% of Brazil’s population — had had at least one abortion. According to the report, at least 50% of those women were hospitalized for complications. Abortion is the fifth-highest cause of maternal mortality. [...]
A disproportionate number of women who seek illegal abortions in Brazil are poor, young, and uneducated. According to the 2010 study, about 42% of women have their first abortion between the ages of 12 and 19, and about about 23% of women with less than a fourth-grade education have had an abortion.
“If you are older and you have money, there are private clinics that are reasonably good,” Barroso said. ”But if you are young and poor, you are really at the mercy of this terrible situation.” [...]
In addition to the health threats, women who seek an illegal abortion in Brazil are under the constant threat of criminal action.
While prosecutions are rare, women who are hospitalized for abortion complications frequently face criminal and civil action, and even run the risk of spending up to three years in jail. Police raids on abortion clinics have also become increasingly routine, and authorities often take thousands of medical files of women, exposing their private medical histories to the community.
Of course, these risks are problematic in a number of ways. Although anecdotal, I spoke with an upper middle-class woman who openly admitted to having two abortions, and the ease, safety, and relative security she had in the process. Thus, she had a far greater sense of health and safety in her procedures than poorer women would, a fact she herself was cognizant of. And by her own admission, she was not proud of the fact, yet was also aware that, given where she was in life and the issues she confronted when she had both abortions, they were probably the best choice for her and for her family (she later had children, once her personal and professional life had settled down and she was older). Yet even she, like poorer women, faced the very real risk of serving up to three years in prison, merely for trying to control some sense of autonomy with regards to her own body. And though the wealthy women could face prison as well, the likelihood that personal connections, wealth, and a skewed legal system treats them better than the poor reveals that even that risk is unequal along class lines. All the while, the illegality of abortion fails to curb the practice, even while hundreds of thousands have died from it due to their inability to secure safe, healthy options in exercising control over their bodies, their lives, their futures, and, oftentimes, the futures of their eventual families.
And again, this is in a country that is not as restrictive on abortion as other countries in Latin America. When those who support reproductive freedom in the US comment that criminalization does not eliminate a practice, they aren’t just speaking philosophically. There are far too many examples throughout the hemisphere that reveal what happens when governments impinge upon women’s freedoms. What happens to women in Brazil is, sadly, just another reminder of that reality.
-Brazil’s Federal Council of Medicine recently came out in favor of legalizing first-trimester abortions in Brazil, adding to the arguments and debate over the issue in a country where abortion is currently only legal in the case of rape, severe mental disability in the fetus, or if the pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s life.
-A hunger strike at Guantanamo continues to expand and to last, adding to questions of indefinite detention at the US bas in Cuba.
-Students in Chile continue to demand educational reforms, and, after police attempted to force students onto a route other than the already-approved one, the march turned violent, a turn of events that could perhaps have been avoided had police not forced the last-minute change.
-In an attempt to reduce violence against women, Ecuador may categorize femicide as a separate crime within the country’s penal code.
-The Brazilian Senate passed a law this week that gives domestic workers the same rights as other workers, including overtime pay, finally extending workers’ rights to the millions of domestic workers (almost all women) who work for Brazil’s middle- and upper-classes. Unsurprisingly, those who employ domestic servants have pushed back against the idea of their workers actually enjoying basic rights (an attitude the Washington Post itself reinforces by declaring the law will “impinge” upon the economy).
-Police violence in Honduras continues to be a major issue, as police act excessively and with impunity in ways reminiscent of the 1980s, even as the US allegedly continues to funnel money to forces that operate as death squads (a charge US officials of course deny).
-In tales of opposite results, the Peruvian government is working on setting aside lands for indigenous peoples who voluntarily remain isolated from most of Peruvian society, even while one of the few Bolivian indigenous groups that is growing faces opposition from ranchers who continue in their attempts to relocate native groups and seize their lands.
-A Brazilian doctor and her medical staff are under investigation for the murder of seven patients at a hospital; however, reports suggest that at least another 20 deaths could be tied to her team, with 300 more cases under investigation. According to one recording of the doctor, she allegedly committed the murders in order to open up beds in the hospital.
-As Paraguay’s elections approach, conservative candidate Horacio Cartes appears to be in the lead.
-Speaking of elections, Michelle Bachelet has officially announced she will run for president for a second time (she previously served from 2006-2010) as Chile prepares for elections next year. However, in spite of her incredible popularity when she left office in 2010, the path to a second term is far from assured. She is already facing harsh criticisms from other politicians and has significant work to do among social groups (including students and those who support the indigenous Mapuche, whom Bachelet targeted) who have grown critical not just of the right-wing Pinera government, but of the post-Pinochet governments in general.
-Finally, in a bit of potentially good environmental news, Brazil’s supermarkets have agreed not to sell beef from cattle raised in the Amazonian forest. It is not clear how they will monitor this or prevent all Amazonian beef from reaching the shelves, but given that ranches are responsible for much of the deforestation in the Amazon, this is a not-insignificant step.
While it’s far from the complete reproductive freedoms women should have access to, Uruguay took a not-insignificant step yesterday as the Senate passed a bill allowing abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, following the Chamber of Deputies’ approval of the bill last month. Certainly, the bill has many problems still – as critics point out, it is limited to the first trimester, and women first have to defend their decision to a doctor based on the “economic, social, family, or age difficulties,” talk to a panel of “at least three professionals,” and then wait five days before getting the procedure. Obviously, given the first-trimester limit (and the fact that many women don’t know they are pregnant until after more than a few weeks further limits the time in which women could act). By any general measure of reproductive freedoms, this is significantly limited law. Nonetheless, it is an important step for a region where many countries at best limit abortion only to victims of rape or incest or in cases where the life of the mother is threatened. For any number of cultural, social, and political reasons, it’s probably unrealistic to see a sudden shift from virtually no reproductive freedom to total freedom, so though the Uruguayan bill is still highly problematic, it’s also hopefully the first of what will be many steps towards women’s rights in Latin America. Time will tell.
-In the wake of his re-election this past Sunday, Hugo Chávez has named Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro his new vice president. I originally suggested that, in the wake of the election, one of the big questions would be whether Chávez made any attempts to institutionalize his policies and programs in the event he has to leave his office; the selection of Maduro suggests that Chávez himself, whose health is regularly a matter of speculation, may be moving towards institutionalizing his reforms and considering a time where he is no longer able to hold office.
-Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri is under fire after alerting a pro-life group to a rape victim who was seeking an abortion at a hospital. Macri made the move in what is a clear infringement on the woman’s rights in an attempt to pressure her to avoid abortion. Earlier this year, the Argentine Supreme Court ruled that rape victims could not be prosecuted for ending a pregnancy that was the result of a rape, though that has not stopped Macri from consistently rejecting women’s reproductive freedoms by vetoing municipal bills that would allow abortion in the cases of rape or when the health of the mother is at risk.
-Citing tongue cancer and other medical issues, Alberto Fujimori’s family has formally requested a pardon for the imprisoned ex-president and convicted violator of human rights.
-Colombian paramilitary leader Hector German Buitrago (AKA “Martin Llanos”) confessed to the murder of villagers in 1997′s Mapiripan massacre as part of the right-wing paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia; AUC).
-This past weekend, Mexico’s military killed Heriberto Lazcano, one of the key figureheads in the Zetas cartel, one of the more powerful and violent cartels in the country, in what the Mexican government is now saying was an “accident.”
-The US Supreme Court has rejected Chevron’s appeal of an Ecuadoran decision that ruled the country owes $18.2 billion in damages for the systematic discharge of toxic waste that led to the destruction of the environment and an increase in diseases, including cancer, related to the pollution in the Ecuadoran Amazonian basin.
-Indigenous peoples and environmental activists in Brazil have again blocked access to a construction site at the controversial Belo Monte dam, protesting against the environmental impact and the destruction of indigenous lands that the dam will cause. At the end of August, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled construction on the dam could proceed, but opposition from indigenous groups and activists, as well as environmentalists, continues.
-Calls for Guatemala to investigate the military have mounted after armed forces shot into a crowd of protesting indigenous peoples, killing eight natives, and the opposition party has begun investigating the possibility of filing charges against officials in President Otto Pérez Molina’s administration. While such charges seem unlikely right now, the murder is not insignificant; military violence in Guatemala is still a highly-sensitive and charged issue since the end of the 36-year civil war that ended in 1990, during which the Guatemalan armed forces regularly targeted indigenous communities in a genocidal campaign.
-In a historic moment for Brazilian politics, Supreme Court Justice Joaquim Barbosa was chosen as the first ever black president of the court.
-Finally, in a logic that can at best be described as dubious, Trinidad’s Minister Jack Warner has announced the country will no longer release crime statistics to the public because such data (Warner alleges) encourages people to commit more crimes.
Last night, Uruguay’s Chamber of Deputies voted 50-49 to legalize abortion, meaning the bill proceeds now to the Senate. Uruguay’s president, José Mujica, has already he said he would sign such a bill if the Senate approves it. And while opponents to the bill say that, if it passes, they will call for a national referendum to overturn legalization, polls suggest a greater majority of Uruguayans support legalization, with 52% saying they would vote in favor of it and only 34% saying they would vote against it. Thus, even though the bill passed by the slimmest of margins in the Chamber of Deputies, it appears Uruguay’s population has fewer reservations over opening reproductive freedom for women than their politicians do.
The bill does not allow women to have total control over their reproductive rights, however. Abortions would be limited only to the first 12 weeks (14 weeks in case of rape), and women would be forced to “ justify their request before a panel of at least three professionals — a gynecologist, psychologist and social worker — and listen to advice about alternatives including adoption and support services if she should decide to keep the baby,” and even after all that, she still has to go through a five day period of “reflection” before getting the abortion. With abortion being legal only in the first trimester, this drawn-out process reduces women’s options and could delay things enough to force some to seek illegal and life-threatening options. At the same time, the bill does get rid of some ridiculous provisions that reinforced the worst types of patriarchy (the three-member review panel only has to get the father’s opinion if the woman agrees, rather than mandating paternal input like some advocated). It’s not the best option for women’s reproductive freedoms, but in a country and a region that too often restricts women’s choices, it is an important step in the right direction; now it’s just up to the Uruguayan Senate.
With the debate over rape and abortion in the United States continuing to rage in the wake of Todd Akin’s comments, Nicaragua provides a reminder that this is what happens when women are denied their reproductive rights:
Carla lost everything when she got pregnant at the age of 13: her first year of secondary school, her family, her boyfriend, and her happiness. She spent a year panhandling on the streets of the Nicaraguan capital before she was taken in by a shelter for young mothers.
Her life fell apart in December 2006, when her mother discovered that she was three months pregnant as a result of being raped by one of her primary school teachers. Her mother gave her a savage beating with a belt and threw her out of the house, saying she couldn’t afford another mouth to feed.
Carla’s* baby died at birth due to respiratory problems. During the pregnancy, a neighbour let her sleep in her house, but did not give her meals. So she sold homemade sweets and begged for small change at bus stops, where she suffered continuous sexual harassment from men who offered her money, drugs or food in exchange for sex.
She was initially taken in by Casa Alianza, the Latin America branch of the New York-based Covenant House, an international child advocacy organisation. But at the age of 15 she went to stay at a school shelter, where she took cosmetology and beauty courses. Now 19, she works in that field, and is also a volunteer motivator in the centre for young mothers, which she said saved her life and taught her that she had human rights.
The case of Carla, with whom IPS was put in touch by a non-governmental organisation that works with at-risk children and adolescents, illustrates a phenomenon that takes on alarming proportions in this Central American nation, one of the few countries in the world where abortion is illegal under all circumstances.
Of course, these are the types of issues women in the US would confront if the Republican Party’s official platform went into effect.
-In a rare bit of good news, it appears the deforestation rate in the Amazon had once again dropped (though 2,049 square kilometers of deforestation is still a significant loss).
-In Chile, a crackdown on Mapuche activists left at least five children injured after state forces again used harsh measures against Chile’s largest (and regularly-repressed) indigenous group.
-In a step backwards for women’s rights, deadlock in Uruguay’s Congress has postponed the legalization of abortion up to the twelfth week. Meanwhile, in Chile, a study finds that women continue to have a difficult time speaking out against unfair wage practices that reward men more than women for the same work.
-Mexican singer Chavela Vargas, who pushed gender stereotypes and irked the Catholic Church, passed away at 93.
-In a major, if temporary, victory for indigenous rights, the Colombian Constitutional Court ordered the military forces to leave indigenous lands in the Southeastern part of the country, a ruling the government plans to appeal.
-In a novel solution that other countries could learn from, Honduras has banned guns in the Carribean region of Colón.
-In Argentina, popular outrage erupted after a video of police tortured two prisoners became public. Argentines say the video is more evidence that torture within state forces continues nearly thirty years after the brutal dictatorship that used widespread torture fell from power.
-Meanwhile, in a step forward for prisoners’ rights in Brazil, the government is shutting down illegal, police-constructed makeshift prisons where due process and rule of law were often absent.
-Brazil is set to spend $9.6 billion reais (roughly $4.75 billion US dollars) to project hydroelectric dams, including the controversial Belo Monte dam, from invasions and strikes. The move comes just a few weeks after indigenous peoples whose lands will be flooded had occupied the dam’s construction site in protest.
-It’s not just major dams that cause problems for peasants in Latin America; in Mexico, communities have intensified their struggles against state-sponsored “small dams.”
-Brazil and Uruguay recently signed a new round of agreements that will intensify the economic ties between the two countries.
-Finally, in a tragic if unsurprising conclusion, the increased violence in Mexico in the past several years has led to a rise in PTSD among Mexico’s population.
-In the wake of violent suppression of growing protests, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala shuffled his cabinet again, picking as prime minister former human rights lawyer Juan Jimenez to replace ex-military officer Oscar Valdes. The move is likely designed at least in part to signal a more peaceful treatment of protesters going forward.
-On the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Eva “Evita” Perón, Argentina announced she will become the first woman whose image will appear on currency, with Evita appearing on the 100-peso bill.
-In the ongoing devastation of climate change, scientists suggest that rising ocean waters pose a serious threat to the world’s coral reef habitats, even while increasingly unstable temperatures in the atmosphere and ocean waters have led to a growing threat to sea turtles.
-Tim has this sobering reminder that there continues to be an “epidemic” of femicides in El Salvador, with 186 women murdered in the first four months of 2012 alone in a country with only roughly 2.3 million women citizens 15 or older.
-Meanwhile, São Paulo has witnessed a “surge” in murders and other violent crimes, with some analysts suggesting the socioeconomic inequalities and high cost of living in South America’s largest city as contributing factors.
-A pregnant teenager diagnosed with leukemia has again stirred the debate over women’s reproductive rights in the Dominican Republic, where abortion is illegal even in the case of saving the mother.
-Venezuela has announced it will be leaving the OAS’s American Convention on Human Rights, as well as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, putting the issue of human rights in Venezuela in a more precarious position.
-Speaking of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, it recently ruled in favor of indigenous peoples in Ecuador who had said that the government had ignored their autonomous rights when approving an energy project on the lands of the Sarayaku peoples without their consultation.
-In Argentina, the legal system is speeding up the trials of men charged with human rights violations during the so-called “Dirty War” dictatorship of 1976-1983 in an attempt to force aging perpetrators to serve time for their past crimes before they die. And former military leader and convicted human rights violator Jorge Videla said that the Catholic Church was aware of the regime’s use of “disappearances” of political opponents and “advised” the regime on the matter.
-Finally, members of the FARC in Colombia blew up a major pipeline, not only disrupting production but also causing pollution that will have a significant long-term impact on the environment and rivers near the pipeline.
Honduras’s Congress is debating a bill “that would send women to jail if they use the morning-after pill — even for victims of sexual assault.“ If it were to pass, the law would be part of a trend of laws in the region more broadly that are a direct assault on women’s freedom. Other recent laws that directly assault women’s rights include Brazilian courts ruling that sex with 12-year-old girls does not constitute statutory rape, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega banning all abortions and downgrading rape to a crime of passion and the Chilean Senate recently refusing to decriminalize abortion even in cases of saving the mother’s life or of severe deformation of the fetus.
-In a case of taking veritas in the theatre too far, a Brazilian actor portraying Judas in a passion play in Brazil is in a medically-induced coma after nearly strangling himself to death while re-enacting the death of Judas.
-In more Easter controversy, an Uruguayan minister has stirred controversy after calling Jesus “that skinny fellow who was crucified for being candid and who spent all his time preaching forgiveness.” (Though I admit it’s hard for me to see how the latter part of that statement is offensive, as a quick read of the Gospels pretty much has Jesus being candid and preaching forgiveness. Maybe the “all the time” part offends people? Or perhaps the “Jesus was morbidly obese” lobby has more heft than one would imagine?)
-The brutal and hateful murder of Daniel Zamudio finally galvanized Chile’s Congress to pass a seven-year old anti-discrimination bill that prohibits discrimination based on “any distinction, exclusion or restriction that lacks reasonable justification, committed by agents of the state or individuals, and that causes the deprivation, disturbance or threatens the legitimate exercise of fundamental rights.” No word yet, though, on whether the discrimination against women’s freedom from fear and rape constitutes a restriction that “lacks reasonable justification.”
-In a reminder that Chile is far from monopolizing homophobic hate-crimes in South America, violence against the LGBT community in Brazil is on the rise, with the murders of gays and lesbians on the rise even while the country’s overall crime rate is decreasing.
-While reports emerged last week that the Zetas and MS-13 (the Maras) were joining forces in the drug trade in Central America, Mike points out that such conclusions may be hasty and erroneous.
-Chile’s Supreme Court has removed a major obstacle in the construction of a dam that would have a major impact on the environment and peoples of southern Chile. The court ruled that the HydroAysen dam in Patagonia may proceed, in spite of protests and opposition from environmentalists and others.
-Peruvian authorities suspect members of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla movement are responsible for the kidnapping of gas workers.
-Competing legal systems and cultural understanding have created conflict and confusion in Colombia, where Colombian authorities want to prosecute a 15-year-old for impregnating a 10-year-old girl. While Colombia has outlawed sex with minors under the age of 15, the girl is member of the Wayuu indigenous group, which, in accordance with the Colombian constitution, has its own legal jurisdiction outside of Colombian control.
-The Miami Marlins’ baseball coach Ozzie Guillen has been suspended five games for an interview in which he expressed respect for Fidel Castro’s ability to remain in power for so long. While Guillen was completely and totally in line with understandings of freedom of speech in the U.S. and also spoke of Castro negatively, it was his declaration that he “love[s]” Castro that outraged the Miami Cuban community and led to protests from a fanbase that has never really or regularly embraced the Marlins since their inaugural season in 1993.