We’ve covered the effects and lessons of criminalizing abortion before, be it in or Brazil, Nicaragua, El Salvador, or Chile. Sadly, Brazil,has another tragic example of the horrors that can occur when abortion is criminalized:
Jandira dos Santos Cruz was terrified. In her last text messages, she pleaded with a friend to pray for her. It seems she had good reason to be afraid: The 27-year-old Rio secretary got into a car with strangers on Aug. 26, bound for an illegal abortion clinic, and never came home.
Now police say a burned and dismembered torso, missing its teeth and found in the trunk of a car matching the description of the one Ms. Cruz took to the clinic, may be hers. Nursing assistant Rosemere Aparecida Ferreira, who is believed to be the clinic employee who arranged Ms. Cruz’s abortion, and her husband, police officer Edilson dos Santos, were arrested Thursday night in a city three hours away from Rio.
If Jandira’s case is exceptional for its horrific outcome, it is not exceptional for its existence. While Brazil allows abortion in the case of rape, incest, or if the mother’s health is at risk, even for these cases, it is incredibly difficult to find a doctor willing to safely and openly conduct such medical practices. The result is of the limited accessibility and social stigma of abortion is that, of the roughly one million women who seek an abortion in Brazil, “An estimated 250,000 women a year seek medical help in public clinics for the complications of an illegal abortion” (and that says nothing about those who are privileged enough to seek help from private doctors willing to quietly aid them and keep the issue under wraps). In the worst case scenario, as Jandira dos Santos Cruz reminds us, women die (sometimes in horrific ways) merely for attempting to exercise control not only over their own bodies, but their own futures. Once again we have a tragic reminder that criminalizing abortion does not make it go away; it simply further endangers women.
In another episode of the impact of total bans on abortion in Latin America, an 11-year-old girl was raped by her mother’s partner repeatedly over the course of two years, finally resulting in a pregnancy that doctors say puts the life of both the girl, who is still growing, and the fetus at risk. However, thanks to a total ban on abortions in Chile, the 11-year-old girl will have to carry the pregnancy to term, even if it kills her or/and the baby. Facing this reality, the 11-year-old has said she will give birth (an obvious choice, since a medically viable alternative is illegal in Chile), and President Sebastián Piñera praised the girl’s “maturity” for her choice [or "choice" - for how can one really choose if there are no other options available]. It seems not-unfair to suspect that an 11-year-old does not have a full grasp of the situation of pregnancy, but thanks to Chilean law, there is no legal alternative for her. And why is that the case?
Because Pinochet completely criminalized abortion in all cases, and lawyers have failed to change the law since then. And so, a young girl born 12 years after Pinochet’s regime fell and 4 years after he was first arrested in London is denied a choice for her future thanks to a dictatorship she never even saw.
…[update] Meanwhile, presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet has come out in favor of limited decriminalization that would allow abortion in the cases of rape or medical emergency.
In recent weeks, the case of Beatriz has gained international attention. Beatriz is a pregnant Salvadoran woman who suffers from lupus whose baby has a lethal condition. Though the baby, which only has a brain stem, will not survive, carrying the pregnancy to completion also puts Beatriz’s life at extreme risk. However, thanks to El Salvador’s total ban on abortion, Beatriz cannot save her own life.
In an attempt to protect her own life, the case had reached El Salvador’s highest court. Sadly, the news was not good for women’s health and the basic right to survive, as the court ruled that the complete ban on abortion stands, even in Beatriz’s case, and that “the rights of the mother cannot be privileged over newborn’s,” even when that fetus will not survive birth. The five court members said that, while lupus would probably kill Beatriz eventually, they said there was no imminent threat to her health. The court thus ordered Beatriz to go through with the pregnancy in spite of the physical toll it will take on her (to say nothing of the mental and psychological toll of giving birth just to have the baby die). Perhaps not coincidentally, all five judges are men (with only one of them dissenting) who ultimately determined the trauma and fate of Beatriz without according her any control over her own life, even in the face of the risks to her life and the certainty of the inviability of life in the fetus. Suffice to say, it’s a terrible ruling for equal rights, reproductive freedom, and women’s health, and it offers yet another devastating reminder of the cost of total bans on abortion.
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.